Text by Tris Marlis @ Makansutra, File Photos: Makansutra
Have you ever dreamt of having food named after you? How did the Roti John name come about and who is this John. A lot of food we eat today are named after people, and they are not always the creator and we are not talking about Ronald Mcdonald. From the grandma next door to a well-known scholar, anyone can be remembered in the world of good food, for humble and meaningful reasons.
Back to John, who is he? The dish, Roti John, takes its name from a common form of address for Caucasians – John – by local Singaporeans back in the day. It was inspired by an Englishman who often ordered an onion omelette to eat with a side order of French loaf. A Muslim hawker, Shukor, decided one day to combine the onion omelette and bread and then Roti John was born. But there’s another explanation: Roti John has been around since the 60s as a substitute to burger. Shukor tweaked the recipe and sauce and popularised it in the 70s at the defunct “Botanic Gardens” hawker centre at the top of Cluny Road then.
If Roti John needs company, what about a glass of Michael Jackson? It is a drink with a mix of soy bean and grass jelly. It is interesting to watch older people who barely speak English ordering a glass of ‘Michael Jackson’ at kopitiam. This drink is said to be created in Penang, Malaysia. People didn’t have a name for it until Michael Jackson released his single titled “Black or White” in the early 90s. It also refers to Michael Jackson’s quest to look whiter than he was. Since then, drink vendors from Penang to Singapore started calling this drink after the King of Pop.
In China, “Chen Ma Po Dou Fu” is a Sze Chuan dish that refers to a pock-marked (ma) face old woman (po) whose surname is Chen, who lived in the city of Chengdu and sold tofu. It is said that traders often brought some meat, and asked the pock-marked granny to prepare a dish for them. She then cooked the meat and tofu, in Szechuan style we know today, using Szechuan peppercorn, chilli oil, fermented black bean paste and a lot of garlic. According to Chengdu Records, Chen Ma Po Dou Fu was regarded as one of the most famous Chengdu food by the end of Qing Dynasty.
In Korea, an appetiser dish of cold bean sprouts, Sukjanamul, is named after a scholar, but not for very good reason. ‘Sukju’ derives from Shin Suk Ju, a prominent scholar who betrayed King Danjeong. To cut a long story short, people regarded Shin’s behaviour as unethical and started associating him with bean sprout which goes bad and spoil easily. Another theory is that during the famine in Korea, Shin was the one who imported mung bean sprout from China to replace the usual kongnamul (yellow bean sprout).
Lastly, the sandwich that we eat everyday is credited to an English nobleman, John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. The story happened one night in 1762, when Montagu was too busy gambling to stop for a meal. He ordered a waiter to bring him roast beef between two slices of bread, so that he can eat while playing cards without getting his fingers dirty. Sandwich became well-known quick food, and everyone started ordering “the same as Sandwich!”
Five people of different background and status have food named after them for different reasons. If you are going to name a dish after you, what would it be?