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Why is Chinese grilled fish getting popular in Singapore?

A dietician, food writer and Singaporeans weigh in on why the cuisine is getting popular in the country.

Why is Chinese grilled fish getting popular in Singapore? (Photos: Yahoo Southeast Asia & Getty Images)
Why is Chinese grilled fish getting popular in Singapore? (Photos: Yahoo Southeast Asia & Getty Images)

Take a walk along shopping malls and food districts in Singapore, and you'll likely notice more authentic Chinese eateries and grilled fish restaurants popping up in the last year.

According to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, Singapore was predicted to rank first in the world, with a spending average of US$1,393 (S$1,886) per person on Chinese food in 2021. That same year, it was also predicted to spend approximately S$9.9 billion on Chinese food alone.

But what are some of the reasons behind the rising popularity of Chinese cuisine in Singapore?

Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke with a dietician, a food writer and some Singaporeans on why they think this food trend is on the rise.

Embracing new cuisine, more non-local Chinese

With visible long queues at food places across the country, there is no doubt that Singaporeans take their food very seriously.

And with more non-local Chinese coming to a country deemed as a "melting pot of cultures", it is only natural that they bring along their cuisine, said Aptima Nutrition dietitian Jaclyn Reutens.

These include the use of different herbs, spices, oils and ingredients that are not locally found.

As such, local tastebuds have grown to accept other kinds of Chinese cooking, such as Szechuan cuisine, which is more spicy and leaves tingling tastebuds, and soups and stews from Guangdong.

Food and lifestyle writer, Marcus Leong, likens the demand for grilled fish and authentic Chinese cuisine as a continuation of the craze over Chinese dish, Mala Xiang Guo (spicy stir-fry hot pot).

"As Asians, we love eating steamed fish, so naturally the whole combination of Mala spices and grilled fish seemed like a natural step," he said.

Meanwhile, Joel Tan, who frequents Chinese restaurants at least once a week, believes that grilled fish serves as a new option to existing Chinese cuisine such as Mala Xiang Guo, barbecue skewers, and regular Szechuan dishes.

He also said that the peppercorn oil used in grilled fish dishes is not commonly found in non-soup based foods.

Demand for strong flavours and customised dishes

Leong said that Singaporeans generally have a love for spicy food, and a preference for dishes with "strong flavours". He also noted that locals prefer food with "levels" in texture and flavour.

Authentic Chinese cuisine, such as grilled fish pack a "ton of different flavours and textures", with its ingredients and spices, Leong said.

Since the mala craze over the last few years, local tastebuds have evolved to embrace the numbing sensation of peppercorn and stronger flavours that are also used in grilled fish dishes.

This was echoed by Reutens, who said that Chinese cuisine and grilled fish gave Singapore's traditional local fare "a spicier twist".

She also pointed out Singaporeans have a unique ability to embrace new styles of cooking.

"If it tastes good, then demand will certainly create a supply," she said.

As a flavourful dish that tastes good, grilled fish can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre and make it memorable, said Reutens.

When you are hungry and thinking about what to eat, chances are that your brain will remind you of previous delightful dining experience.Dietitian Jaclyn Reutens

Chinese restaurant chains have also made the effort to cater to local tastebuds. Beautiful Lai Grilled Fish, a sister brand of Tai Er, adjusted its menu to introduce Cheese Tomato Grilled Fish at its Singapore outlet.

While the Singapore branch retained 80 per cent of its original menu from China, such as its signature Green Pepper Grilled Fish dish, they also offer items such as the Cheese Sweet Potato Bake and a range of beverages catered to Singaporean tastes, the restaurant told Yahoo.

Sharing dish and social media

Group of friends eating and looking at smart phones (Photo: Getty Images)
Group of friends eating and looking at smart phones (Photo: Getty Images)

As an "easy sharing dish that brings people together", one can order a grilled fish topped up with some extra ingredients for it to be shared in a group, said Leong.

This ties in with the strong communal dining culture in Asia, that is also seen in Singapore.

Echoing this, Tan said that Chinese grilled fish is a "go to" in his group gatherings of four and more, as its price point was not too expensive for social eating with friends.

The rise of Chinese cuisine like grilled fish can also be attributed to online content showcasing the colourful ingredients used in the dishes on social media, said Reutens.

This allows consumers to "eat with our eyes", and help spread the word, she said.

Health considerations

While gaining popularity, Reutens pointed out that authentic Chinese cuisine such as grilled fish can be extremely high in sodium content, due to its use of a good amount of monosodium glutamate (MSG), salt and a variety of sauces.

While people usually avoid drinking the chilli oil, it inevitably gets absorbed and soaked in the meat, noodles and rice in these dishes, making some dishes oily and high in fat.

Reutens suggested only selecting one deep-fried or ‘obviously’ oily dish when dining at these places, and supplementing the meal with steamed, stir-fried or stew dishes.

To maintain a well-balanced diet, diners can also order a vegetable dish for fibre intake, she said.