Leaves in Our Kitchen

Banana leaves

Leaves in the tropics are big. Bigger than the ones up in Greenland and down in New Zealand. This is because larger leaves tend to frost during cold nights and overheat in desert-like climates, but they cope very well in hot and wet tropical areas such as Southeast Asia (Klein).

Leaves of banana, bamboo, coconut, water lotus and betel nut palm in particular are put to good use in the Singaporean kitchen. These leaves are flexible and can be folded to wrap around food of different shapes. They also have strong water-proofing quality to withstand hot water and steam, as well as the gravies so common in Singapore’s food cultures. Some of them even impart a fragrance to the wonderful treat they carry (Ng). Continue reading

A Crush for Mortar and Pestle


The mortar and pestle has a permanent place in local kitchens because it is required to combine the aromatic spices used widely in Singapore’s cuisines.

Sambal, a chilli sauce integral to Malay and Peranakan cuisines, is created in a mortar, usually made of granite. After its ingredients like chillies, garlic and shallots are pounded into one, sambal is either served as a condiment or stir-fried with meats, seafood or vegetables to make a sambal goreng dish. Another common item created with the mortar and pestle is rempah, a spice paste of varying ingredients like candlenuts and galangal that forms the aromatic base for braised meats (e.g. babi pongteh) and grilled fish (e.g. otak otak). So common were these preparation methods that families in the past also kept a batu giling, a large granite slab and roller, to grind more spices for bigger spreads (Sass).

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Wok: When Breath Becomes Culinaire

wok frying

Useful kitchen tools stand the test of time and new technologies. The wok is one of them.

The concaved and round-bottom utensil was designed for fast cooking as China was always short of fuel (Wilson 83). Its metal body conducts heat quickly, while its sloping sides provide a large cooking surface, producing maximum tastes with minimum fuel. The wok also sits securely atop the traditional Chinese stove, a brick- or clay-made open cylinder, but it is not always left to its own devices (Tan 8). A skillful cook likes to give it a jerk in circular motion to cook the food even faster and more evenly. Chinese dishes are by no coincidence pre-cut into fast-to-cook morsels but are designed so for the fuel-poor but food-loving Chinese (Wilson 54-55). Continue reading

Warming Ties with Barbecue Pits

A barbecue pit at East Coast Park.

A barbecue pit made entirely of concrete.

They reside in most condominiums as well as public housing estates. They are also expected at chalets, campsites and beach parks. Barbecue pits are everywhere in Singapore. As more than 80 per cent of the country’s resident population live in high-rise flats, this implement is more often a shared facility than a personal backyard grill.

Barbecue became a popular past-time in Singapore between the 1970s and 80s, reflected by the many stories about this form of cooking published in the local English-language newspapers. They gave advice on meat marinades, specifications of low-calorie cuts, and preached the gospel of barbecue fish: the importance of firm scales —“to seal in the juices”— and the minimum layers of banana leaves (five) to make a wrap (Lee 5; “How to Make” 16; “Calorie Scale” 25). When the fees for barbecue pits at East Coast Park increased by $1 in 1985, it made the news too (“Barbecue Fees Up” 13).

The proliferation of barbecue pits in residential and recreational spaces during this period coincided with the rise of Singapore’s economy. As the people’s affluence grew, they demanded more recreation options. Barbecue pits were amenities offered as part of new parks built across the country (Fung and Ng 1). The biggest project in the 1970s was East Coast Park, which was constructed on a newly reclaimed coast and boasted a 9km cycling track and many barbecue pits along the shoreline. Shortly after, in 1981, the Singapore Institute of Parks & Recreations, reported that barbecue was “the most popular past-time in Singapore, with the young revellers staying on the beach throughout the night” (20). Continue reading

The Material Culture of Kopitiam Cups

Kopitiam cups 5

Images from roots.sg

The icons of a kopitiam (coffee shop) vary depending on who you ask. A young person who knows the coffee shop as it is today – underneath a Housing Development Board (HDB) block and comprising of several food stalls – identifies with the transparent glass cups with big handles. Those who used to while away their afternoons at the coffee shops before the 1970s, fondly remember the stout porcelain cups with green or blue floral motifs as well as their matching porcelain saucers and spoons.

This porcelain coffee set was the de facto utensils used by coffee shops since they began in the early 20th century (Ong). Pioneered by the people of Fuzhou and Hainan, such establishment peaked in numbers during the Depression Era in the 1930s when many vacant shop lots were up for grabs at low rent. The Hainanese, in particular, many of whom had been cooks for the British, snapped up shophouse units by the dozens to capitalise on what they learned in the British kitchens. As the barriers to entry for selling coffee and tea to the working class was low, coffee shops sprouted across the island beginning from the Hainanese enclave of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street (Han 24).

These coffee shops enjoyed brisk business, receiving hundreds of customers every day. Despite tea and coffee costing a mere 2 to 4 cents before the war, a flourishing coffee shop could make $70 a day (KKCMRBOA 286). The porcelain coffee set was in many ways useful to the coffee shop assistants coping with this high-speed operation. An assistant typically served several drinks at one go, especially when large groups of customers arrived together. However, the porcelain cup, which became hot when filled with coffee, must be held by its ear. The assistants would have to make multiple trips to the tables if they delivered only two orders each time. With a saucer, they could easily juggle five cups on both their hands and wrists (Ong). Continue reading

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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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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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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How a Chef Turns Discards into Family Meals

Every day at about 4 pm, the chef deviates from the list of “projects” he needs to complete for service, and mixes ingredients that don’t belong together according to his menu. He scoops up the discards on the cutting boards before they get tossed into the bin, and what doesn’t end up as trash becomes food for his staff at the restaurant. These foods are called the “family meal,” or just “family” at Fung Tu, the Chinese American restaurant where I stage. One hour before service starts at 6pm, the front- and back-of-the-house help themselves to the food. For most of the cooks in the restaurant, including the chef Jonathan Wu, family is their first, and sometimes the only meal of the day. If they are not done prepping for service, they will eat while whipping mayonnaise, or wrapping egg rolls.

Not every ingredient for family comes from scraps. Chef stocks up bucatini pasta, chickpeas, and sweet Italian sausages specifically for family, because, he tells me matter-of-factly, they have longer shelf life. But his main aim is to minimise food waste, so he works mostly with the leftovers, the despised animal parts, and the sad-looking vegetables. Bak choy is ever present because only half the batch has the perfect curves to be customer-worthy. On Tuesdays, the first working day of the week, there is always leftover chicken from the Sunday-only menu. Since family corresponds to what the restaurant serves its customers, when a new season arrives, or on special days like the Jewish Passover, the members of the family find new foods in their plates too.

Chef was peeling prawns at noon. After that he made a stock out of the shells and cooked sweet Italian sausages in it, along with shallots, green and red peppers, the outermost, imperfect layers of Brussels sprouts, and unwanted coriander stems from which I had plucked nice green leaves for garnishing. Everything went on top of a bowl of corn grits.

Chef was peeling prawns at noon. After that he made a stock out of the shells and cooked sweet Italian sausages in it, along with shallots, green and red peppers, the outermost, imperfect layers of Brussels sprouts, and unwanted coriander stems from which I had plucked nice green leaves for garnishing. All went on top of a bowl of corn grits.

14/3: Tortilla with mashed chorizo sausage, steamed potatoes, and kale stems that are too thick for Stir-Fried Side Greens.

Tortilla with mashed chorizo sausage, steamed potatoes, and kale stems too thick for “Stir-Fried Side Greens.”

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