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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Dreams and Pragmatism: A Conversation Between Generations

Most people queue to buy food, but Ng Chiam Hui and Malcolm Lee waited for hours to find out how the hawkers prepared their favourite dishes.

Chiam Hui is born in 1949 in Fujian, China, while Malcolm is born a Singaporean Peranakan almost 40 years later. These men belong to two different generations but they have the same patience for a good recipe.

In the late 1960s, Chiam Hui ate duck rice for a week so that he could spy on the adjacent stall, the famous Lao Zhong Zhong outside the old Thong Chai Medical Institution. In a triumphant voice like a prankish kid, the 67-year-old exclaims in Mandarin, “I know every single thing he put in the sauce! No big deal lah! He was mixing there, and I was eating my duck rice and watching him!”

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Singapore’s Kelong Boleh?

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) wants to improve Singapore’s food self-sufficiency. There are more than 100 fish farms in Singapore producing 8 per cent of our total fish consumption. The agency is helping these farms boost their productivity so that their market share can increase to 15 per cent.

I speak to Bryan of Ah Hua Kelong at their coastal farm in Lorong Halus jetty to find out if they are ready to increase production, and how they are dealing with the plankton blooms, the competitive import prices and their own limited output.

This 10-year-old kelong set up by two army friends with a fishing enthusiast is about 4 acres. The cages that carry fishes below 500 grams each are sheltered because smaller fishes are more vulnerable to drastic changes in weather.

This 10-year-old kelong set up by two army friends and a fishing enthusiast is about 4 acres. The farm rears mainly barramundi, pearl grouper and mussels. The cages in the picture are sheltered because the fishes kept inside are under 500 grams each and are more vulnerable to weather changes.

Barramundi, also known as Asian sea bass. The kelong used to sell mainly to the restaurants, but their demand for fishes between the narrow range of 900 grams to 1.1 kilograms is hard to meet, says Bryan, given how fishes grow at different speed despite the same rearing conditions. Today, Ah Hua is one of the few fish farms that offer free home deliveries to boost their B2C sales.

The kelong used to sell mainly to the restaurants, but their specific request for fishes between the narrow range of 900 grams to 1.1 kilograms is hard to meet, says Bryan. Fishes grow at different rates even in the same rearing conditions. Since last year, Ah Hua offers free home deliveries to boost their B2C sales.

They catch wild flower and mud crabs too. Even then, the seafood variety they offer is limited compared to the traditional wet markets where the imports are sold.

They also catch flower and mud crabs from the wild. Even then, their varieties are far from the range of imported seafood. Singaporean consumers who have been spoiled for choices are more likely to buy from the markets, where the entire range of available seafood are sold. The ideal scenario is if the consumers prioritise local supplies, and buy from amongst the imports whatever that is not available from the local farms.

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SGX : Sambal Goreng Exchange with Aida Muda

Sambal tumis telor.

Sambal tumis telor.

Aida texts me a few hours before I’m due to meet her at her sister’s flat. She has already cooked the sambal for the exchange with Rose, because it is also for her lunch with her sisters and their mother.

I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a household full of young and older women. There is Aida, two of her older sisters, their mother, her niece and her niece’s toddler, and her young nephew — the only opposite gender who can be home on a weekday afternoon.

The sambal tumis for Rose is already packed in a plastic container. I ask to take pictures of it, so Aida scoops another portion into a pretty glass dish found in many Malay kitchens. There are pots of leftovers on the stove, including a fermented durian (tempoyak) curry. There is also a box full of cempedak that they plan to fry for dinner.

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