Recipes for the Ideal Singaporean Female

A sewing class in progress at one of the convent schools, c.1950s.

A sewing class in progress at one of the convent schools, c.1950s.

Someone once asked me, “What did you learn to cook at home economics classes?”

In reply I proudly rattled off: fried rice with hotdog cubes, minced chicken on egg tofu, and spaghetti with sauce made with tomato ketchup. Imagine my embarrassment when a fellow (and older) food writer said that she had learned to make meat pies, mee siam and all sorts of kueh-kueh.

How did a 13-year-old get to make all these complex adult dishes at school while I was entrusted to cook with only processed and ready-to-eat ingredients? One crucial factor set us apart: time, or rather different periods of time.

I studied home economics in 1999, while she took the course back in the 1970s when it was known as domestic science, a name that was eventually replaced because it suggested a narrow focus on nutrition and sanitation.

Between the 1930s and 1997, home economics was taught in Singapore schools to train girls to be good homemakers. Depending on the era and the nation’s immediate needs, a “good homemaker” could mean different things – as defined by the prevailing syllabus set by the education authorities.

In the 1970s, for instance, being a good homemaker meant having the skills to just cook and clean. In the 1980s, it expanded to include being a good mother and raising a child. Then, in the 1990s, as more women joined the workforce, good homemakers became prudent consumers of outsourced and commercialised housework.

In “studying” home economics a second time around as research for this essay – reviewing textbooks, minister speeches, newspaper reports and oral histories – what became apparent was not just changes in cookery styles and ingredients over the years, but also official definitions of the “ideal” Singaporean woman.

Read the full article in Biblioasia (Vol 12 Issue 4)
Read PDF here

Singapore Noodles and the Lacklustre Singapore Vermicelli

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

Before “星洲米粉” (xing zhou mi fen) referred to a dish in Singapore’s Chinese press,  it was a term for Singapore manufactured rice vermicelli. This makes me wonder if Singapore Noodles was named 星洲米粉 because Singapore’s vermicelli was key to the making of Singapore Noodles in the earlier days. To find whether the made-in-Singapore vermicelli was any special, I spoke to Goh Soon Poh, general manager at Par  Corporation, a trading house that since the 1970s has been supplying broken rice to  local vermicelli manufacturers, and also consulted the Singapore Noodle Manufacturers’ Association 20th Anniversary Celebration Souvenir Magazine published in 1990.

Singapore began to produce vermicelli around the 1920s, and the industry was pioneered by immigrants from Fujian in Southern China. While the Northern Chinese commonly consume wheat noodles, the Southern Chinese, favour rice noodles such as vermicelli. Within Fujian, rice vermicelli dishes from Fuzhou and Putien stood out, says Goh.

Vermicelli productions took place in kampungs, mostly in Changi, according to the noodle association’s magazine. The producers worked with archaic tools such as stone mills and charcoal fire, to grind rice and steam vermicelli respectively, before taking it out to dry in the sun. Based on my earlier findings, there was competition from China as early as the 1940s, and local vermicelli producers never became powerful enough to edge out the imports. By the 1970s, during Singapore’s massive physical development, less than 10 surviving players relocated their business to industrial estates such as Defu Lane. These producers would eventually automate their processes and export their industrial-sized supplies.

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Japanese TV: The Salarymen’s Food Escapes

There is little room for pleasure in the life of a salaryman, a term coined by the Japanese for overworked and duty-burdened office workers. Their daily routine is governed by company rules, dictating how much they work and what’s left for everyday life. This lack of control over one’s activities and desire for freedom explains the popularity of three Japanese TV shows, where a breadwinner savouring his meal during office hours is not a contradiction.

Afforded too little time of their own, salarymen/women may forgo breakfast or eat on the go. The length of their lunch break determines where they eat, what they eat and with whom. If working hours exceed dinner time, the boundaries within which they exercise individual preferences further constricts. These conditions affect salaried workers everywhere, all but one character in “Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman”.

Amentani Kantaro, a sales representative of a publishing house, rushes his sales trips to pay visits to nearby dessert gems, which he writes about in his blog. He tells no one about his sweet escapades, and pulls it off because he is efficient at his job. But the constraints on a salaryman remains, so he skips places with long lines and limits his orders to what he can eat within the short time he stole from work. Confined to corporate conditions, Kantaro violates a few rules to make room for a personal interest, but is largely obedient so that he keeps his job.

There will be no need to rush if one has controls over one’s own time like businessman Goro Inogashira in “The Solitary Gourmet”. Inogashira’s business brings him to clients all over Japan and he always finds good (and real) places to take lunch. Without strict office hours to follow, he reads the menu back and forth, orders to feed more than a normal appetite, and admires the food’s glow and shine before dissecting tastes and textures. If you watch him over lunch, you’ll be done before he is. Inogashira is never short for time to savour, although the clients’ locations predetermine his food options somewhat.

When none of these work arrangements are available, a salaryman may only countdown patiently to retirement. Takeshi Kasumi in “Samurai Gourmet” is a recent retiree who has a lot of time on his hands and spends it on food adventures. While he sometimes walks into new places, he often revisits nostalgic eateries and memories that he, as well as many others, put aside for a hectic corporate life. Kasumi has an alter ego, a boorish samurai who teaches him to break the shackles of conformity for spontaneity, such as skipping the last train home for a late night snack outside the city. As Kasumi only needs to pace his life against his homemaker wife’s, he goes wherever he wants for food and takes his time to do just that.

Now, if only all bosses are like these men, appreciative of food and the joy they bring, then we can perhaps be afforded to eat proper meals of delicious foods, appropriate to our body and mood, even on days when we are supposedly subject to corporate needs and profits .

“Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman” and “Samurai Gourmet” are available on Netflix. “The Solitary Gourmet” can be watched on popular streaming sites.

Eating Together II: Consider the Wok

We created a smaller iteration of Eating Together for the Asian Civilisation Museum earlier this year. It’s called the Museum of Eating, which included a new section about the material culture of hawker tools. Here’s the writeup, and Jovian Lim‘s beautiful photos.

MUSEUM OF EATING
Eating is a universal act. The ways we eat, however, are cultural and personal. Where we consume our meals, who we chat with over lunch, and what we use to put food in our mouths all affect how we think about our food. In the Museum of Eating, we go beyond the typical foodie conversations about chefs, ingredients, and tastes to look at the designs and techniques used to cook, contain, and carry food in Singapore.

Consider the Wok
Kitchen utensils are common across the world, but look closer and you’ll find variations born out of cultural differences. Singapore hawkers have fed many generations with their good, quick meals. These dishes and the tools to prepare them have persisted despite the onset of modern industrial cooking. But to feed a larger and an increasingly time-starved population, hawkers have had to devise better ways to use or even re-design these age-old tools. Whether it is a wok or a scoop, these kitchen utensils have not just enabled faster and better cooking, they also record the craft and considerations these hawkers have put into perfecting their dishes.

PERFORATED SCOOP

Popiah is a spring roll filled with stewed turnip that is delicious when moist but not soggy. Glory Catering is well-known for such mouth-watering popiah, and they can consistently produce them thanks to a perforated scoop designed by the owners, the Chin family. A typical scoop tends to pick up too much turnip juice, and that aluminum tool falls apart when the cook presses down on it to drain out the liquid. The stew cannot be drained beforehand either, because it’s what keeps the turnip juicy and tasty. Glory’s inventive tool comes with more than 400 perforations to drain more quickly, and its trough shape lets the staff scoop the exact portion of filling, in a shape that is easy to fold into a roll. Truly a handy way to capture Glory’s craft in making popiah.

GLORY-5810_WEB2000PX

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

The back of the scoop fits nicely into the trough – both made of hardy stainless steel – to squeeze out excess juice.

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Mid 1980s Print Advertisements

I got hold of three Female magazine cookbooks published in Singapore between 1985 and 1988, and what turned out to be more intriguing than the recipes are the print ads of food products, which we don’t see so often these days. Back in the 80s long copy ads were still popular and they dominated these cookbooks. These ads may be grouped into a few categories to help explain why more words used to be better.

To explain new products or special features.

Kenwood advertisement

Here, the oven’s “unique double quartz elements” need explanation.

harlen coconut cream

It seems that packet coconut cream was still a novelty in the mid-1980s, which is why Harlen compares itself not with similar products but with freshly squeezed coconut milk.

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Knowing Zi Char through Their Menus

A customer-server exchange at any zi char restaurant before the 1980s typically went like this:

Customer: “One kangkong.”

Server: “With minced garlic or fu yu (fermented bean curd)?”

Customer: “Fu yu.”

Server: “How about soup?”

Customer: “Okay.”

Server: “Fish head, bitter gourd or salted vegetable and tofu? Take fish head. The fish is really fresh today.”

Customer: “Okay, fish head then.”

There was no printed menu. Customers usually had an idea of the types of food—meat, seafood, vegetables, soups or noodles—they wanted, and servers would then suggest the possible flavours and styles of cooking, a conversation that led to a dish.

It was not uncommon for servers to rattle off names of dishes because a zi char restaurant then seldom had more than 20 dishes to offer. It helped that many customers were regulars who could easily order off the top of their head. At some places, cut out, rectangular pieces of vanguard sheets with names of dishes were pasted across the wall as a kind of public menu, but that did not work for every patron. “Many people in those days were illiterate. They couldn’t read. We had to tell them,” said Lam Yau Hoe, whose father founded the zi char restaurant at Toa Payoh, Hong Sheng, in 1968.

Kok Sen, which has the entire coffeeshop at Keong Saik to itself, keeps the practice of displaying menu items on the wall.

Kok Sen, which has the entire coffeeshop at Keong Saik to itself, keeps the practice of displaying menu items on the wall. Others that rent only a stall at a coffeeshop don’t have this kind of space to do so.

Lao Ban Niang at Joo Jiat Road showcases some its staples on acrylic sheets.

Lao Ban Niang at Joo Jiat Road showcases some its staples on acrylic boards.

JB Ah Meng at Geylang shows off his menu on styrofoam boards.

JB Ah Meng at Geylang lists its menu on styrofoam boards.

This is unlike today when almost all Singaporeans can read—not only in their mother tongue but also in English. But a bigger reason behind the now widespread use of printed menus in no-frills zi char restaurants is the rapid expansion of their repertoire.

From just 20 dishes before 1990, Hong Sheng now offers 87 items to its customers. Same goes for long time zi char spaces such as Keng Eng Kee at Bukit Merah, and Kok Sen in Chinatown, which have both seen their offerings more than doubled between the 1970s to 1990s. While such restaurants may have once started specialising in just one type of Chinese cuisine, by the 1980s, they were expanding their menus in response to a more demanding clientele, explains Keng Eng Kee’s owner Kok Liang Hong. More Singaporeans were eating out, and with that came an expectation of greater choices from a single restaurant. Fuelling this consumption was the growth in women entering into Singapore’s labour force. Eating out became a convenient alternative to cooking at home and something more could afford as household incomes rose.

As zi char restaurants tried to outdo one another, cuisines from different regions were mixed and matched. In the 1990s, Cantonese establishments like Hong Sheng added Hokkien specialities, like ngoh hiang to their repertoire, while its pai kwat wong also began appearing in the menus of other restaurants. Restaurants also cooked up new-fangled creations in order to stand out from the rest. More often than not, popular dishes were soon copied by others and added onto their menus to ensure they could satisfy all kinds of tastes. For instance, the then recent creation har cheong kai made its way into Hong Sheng’s offerings even though its main ingredient, fermented prawn paste, was considered too “pungent” for its customers just a decade ago. Even the Southeast Asian ingredient, sambal, eventually became a staple in Hong Sheng, which by the 1990s had a printed A4-size menu as the number of dishes it offered became too many to be remembered by heart.

Besides competition, the cooks in zi char restaurants were also being replaced by a new generation from neighbouring Malaysia as Singaporeans turned their backs to being food producers, preferring office jobs instead. Many of these cooks were Cantonese from Ipoh who had also worked in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru at the equivalent of zi char, known as tai chow.

Wong Foong is one such cook who arrived in Singapore in 1984. He recalled reproducing his employer’s signatures, but also started introducing dishes he prepared back home. Over the years, he has kept in touch with friends and fellow cooks across the border, whom let him in on new dishes to import to Singapore. Cereal prawns and san lou mi fan are just some of today’s zi char staples that are believed to have come from Malaysia. When I phoned Wong for this interview, he was in Johor catching up with friends chefing there, learning new dishes he could bring in to now his own zi char business, JB Ah Meng, at Geylang.

The printed menu of zi char restaurants is a product of changing times and an answer to changing eating behaviours. Spanning from a single A3 sheet to a A4 file, these menus can accommodate—better than a human memory—the insatiable appetite of consumers. They make any zi char restaurant accessible to everyone, especially first-time customers, whom restaurants are welcoming in bigger proportions than before. Thanks to the constant buzz about the latest and the “tastiest” in traditional and social media, consumers in Singapore are constantly on the move to somewhere new.

A sentimental attachment to the familiar and an empathy for those who toil for our food are hardly the qualities of today’s zi char customers. In place of the absent food memories and relationships developed from these sentiments, are the fuss-free menus more palatable to the consumers of the digital age.

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Eating Together: The Design of Sharing Food in a Connected World

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PHOTOS: Clarence Aw

How and what does it mean to eat together today? Last month at Objectifs, my partner and I presented Eating Together: The Design of Sharing Food in a Connected World, an exhibition that examines the objects, systems and spaces that help us share food today.

Commissioned for the inaugural FoodCine.ma 2016, this showcase presented 15 objects, speculative designs and installations that arose out of observations of how design facilitates the ways we eat together in Singapore. Whether it is consuming forever “fresh” food, having meals at our hawker centres, dining in both life and death, or eating with digital devices, we invited visitors to look at eating beyond a mere ingestion of food, but as a consumption of values and cultures.

More about the exhibition, as well as the book we published to document the concepts and our ethnographic research.

Finding Singapore in Granolas and Pizzas

Eastern Granola

Eating pizzas and pastas in between plates of chicken rice and nasi lemak is part of a typical Singaporean diet. For some in Singapore, this mixed cultural diet has even become imaginations of a new national cuisine.

Nasi lemak granola, bak kut teh pulled pork salad and hebi hiam pizzas are amongst the foods created by young entrepreneurs over the last two years. Growing up eating food from their own heritage as well as cuisines from elsewhere has informed their own formulae for cooking: combining local flavours with international food ways.

Granola was the first thing that came to mind when Chin Hui Wen wanted to produce food for sale. She instinctively gave this American snack a Singaporean twist as she was targeting the local market.

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We are the Curry Puffs and Laksa We Eat

Cooking curry puffs in boston

Every Friday, at a mosque in Roxbury, men and women covered in thawb and hijab patiently stand in line for a taste of Singapore cooked up by Madam Saadiah Hassan. Since moving to Boston three years ago, the Singaporean has been running the mosque’s café to pass her time, turning it into an informal gateway to the country where the fifty-something used to sell the very same delicacies in a food court.

Her standard staple for Singaporeans has become curious flavours for the mosque-goers who once knew little about Singapore. But Saadiah’s culinary prowess prompted them to find out more. “They tell me ‘You know mama I read about Singapore’,” chirped the lady who is popularly addressed as ‘mama’ here. “They say Singapore expensive, Singapore clean, Singapore no chewing gum.”

Saadiah is just one of many overseas Singaporeans who have created their own home outside of home through food. By cooking dishes from their home country for the locals, these Singaporeans seek to find a sense of belonging and be recognised by where they come from.

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Hawkers Sold Food in Schools During the 1950s

A St. Anthony’s Girls’ School teacher in 1950 told The Straits Times she could “never concede to the provision of hawker food stalls in school premises” and urged parents to give their children nourishing food during recess instead [1].

Her comment will raise questions among Singaporeans today, especially those who went to school after the 1950s. Was there no school tuckshop to sell food to the pupils? Her open resistance to hawker food suggests it was not unusual to find them in school premises.

The same report interviewed three schools which permitted hawkers to trade within their compounds indeed. Chong Hock Girls’ School at Telok Ayer Street conceded that “specially approved hawkers” were selling seven to eight varieties of food to their pupils. Armenian Street Chinese School opened its gate to hawkers, mainly to prevent children from “going outside and getting involved in accidents”. Gan Eng Seng School had no complaints about the hygiene of the hawkers selling popiah, sausage and “roja” to its students, but it was annoyed by “the noise they caused”.

Gan Eng Seng tuckshop in 1986. The stalls were not built into the tuckshop, unlike today's school canteens. Could this evolved from itinerant hawker stalls?

Gan Eng Seng tuckshop in 1986. The stalls were not built into the tuckshop, unlike today’s school canteens. Could this have evolved from itinerant hawker stalls? (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

By 1954, “all Singapore schools give concessions to one or more hawkers to trade in their grounds on payment of a small rent”. This was brought to light in a news report addressing concerns that the hawkers at Bedok Girls’ School were over-charging for snacks [2]. The story also revealed that the school’s tuckshop sold only biscuits and tea.

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