Singapore’s blazing sun dehydrates anything in its path – not so pleasant for the people but wonderful for keeping food good and crisp.
Before people in Singapore moved into high rise flats, and even before they owned ovens and refrigerators, food was sun-dried outside homes to extend their shelf-lives in this country’s tropical weather. Dehydration is a food preservation process that removes moisture which bacteria and moulds require to grow and cause food spoilage. Due to its geographical location, Singapore is sunny all year round, and except for the heavier rainfall between December and April, there is no distinct wet or dry season (Local Climatology). This means that the sun is a resource constantly available to the cooks in this country.
A heritage food that could not have been made without the tropical sun was agar agar laut, which translates to “agar agar from the sea”. This jelly got its name because it was made from Gracilaria seaweed, which used to be washed up onto the seashores of Siglap and Tanah Merah (Seaweed Jelly 10). During the early 1900s, the Malays, Eurasians and Peranakans collected this seaweed, which looks like loose bunches of “tentacles” in colours like green and brown, to make agar agar laut for Hari Raya, Christmas and Chinese New Year respectively (Agar Agar Jelly 10, De Conceicao, R. Tan).
The sun was first used to dry the seaweed after it was cleaned of shells and sand. After that, the dried seaweed was either cooked immediately or stored, as it was said that the older the seaweed, the better the jelly (Seaweed Jelly 10). To make the jelly, the seaweed was boiled to extract agarose, a gelling agent. Rock sugar and sometimes essence of rose was added for flavour, before the liquid was poured into a mould to cool (How Seaweed Jelly 10, E. Tan).
The sun became useful again to ensure that the jelly could be enjoyed in the months to come. After it was turned out of its mould, the jelly was sunned for several days so that it would keep for as long as six months without refrigeration. Evaporation produced a top layer of crystalised sugar that preserved the jelly. The end result was a bright amber-coloured agar agar of very firm and crunchy texture (How Seaweed Jelly 10). While nobody today collects the seaweed to make agar agar laut from scratch, the jelly is still available at some shops in Joo Chiat during Christmas and Chinese New Year (E. Tan).
The local communities also relied on the sun to make pickles, or achar, although it was less about preserving the vegetables and more about achieving the right crisp. A common mixture of vegetables for pickling includes cucumbers, carrots, cabbages and cauliflower, which used to be dried under the sun until they were dehydrated enough to produce a crunch (Blake 261). If done right, they retain this texture even as they are brined in a mixture white vinegar and spice paste for weeks.
Achar was sun-dried all year round, but especially in late September before the pre-monsoon rains of October and November. Peranakans enjoy a spicy pickle with additional sesame seeds that they also eat during Chinese New Year. Eurasians, however, prefer a tangier achar because it goes well with the mandatory ham at their Christmas tables (Blake 261, S. Tan). These days, those who still make achar at home dry the vegetables in an oven instead. Most simply buy it off the shelves.
Besides preservation, heat from the sun also helps to create rich, intense flavours that food otherwise would not have in their natural state. Singapore’s scorching heat was instrumental in the local soy sauce industry before modern technology took over in the 1980s. The condiment used to be made by leaving large jars of cooked soy beans to ferment in the sun for months (Ng, Sauces Make Good Food 14). An optimal temperature for this process is between 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, which Singapore’s climate can satisfy throughout the year. To produce dark soy sauce, the jars soak up the sun for many more months, until the liquid darkened and its flavour became more concentrated (Tay).
However, this traditional method of production requires a lot of space, which is costly in this land scarce city. With the exception of one producer, the remaining in Singapore have adopted the modern chemical hydrolysis method, which manufactures high volumes of soy sauce in just two days (Ng).
Despite the lesser reliance on the sun
for food production in Singapore, the nation continues to relish flavours
produced by this method. Belacan (shrimp paste), keropok (fried crackers made
of fish or shrimp) and salted fish are just some examples of everyday food
imported from neighbouring countries that have continued to take advantage of the
tropical sun to satisfy our tummies.
“Local Climatology.” National Environment Agency, www.nea.gov.sg/weather-climate/climate. Accessed 22 Feb 2018.
“Seaweed Jelly.” The Straits Times, 23 Mar 1936, p.10.
“Agar Agar Jelly.” The Straits Times, 26 Mar 1936, p.10.
“How Seaweed Jelly is Made in Malaya.” The Straits Times, 27 Mar 1936, p.10.
De Conceicao, Aloysius Leo. Interview by Zaleha Bte Osman. 18 Nov 1998, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=ec29abf4-115f-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC002057_011. Accessed 22 Feb 2018.
Tan, Richard Swee Guan. Interview by Zaleha Bte Osman.14 Apr 1999, www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/viewer?uuid=f60303c6-115f-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC002108_003. Accessed 22 Feb 2018.
Tan, Elsie. Personal Interview. 15 Nov 2017.
Tan, Sylvia. “Delicious Memories.” Asia One, www.asiaone.com/singapore/delicious-memories?page=0%2C1. Accessed 22 Feb 2018.
Blake, Myrna L., et al. Singapore Eurasians: Memories, Hopes and Dreams. World Scientific Publishing, 2017.
Ng, Sor Luan. “Soya Sauce Steep in Tradition.” The Straits Times, 12 Jun 2017, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/soya-sauce-steeped-in-tradition.
“Sauces Make Good Food Better.” The Singapore Free Press, 20 Sept 1955, p.14.
Tay, Leslie. “Kwong Who Hing: The World’s Best Soy Sauce Might Be Right in Our Own Backyard.” I Eat I Shoot I Post, 17 Jun 2011, ieatishootipost.sg/kwong-woh-hing-the-worlds-best-soy-sauce-might-be-right-in-our-own-backyard/.