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Dec 26, 2016

Pioneer Food Columnists of Singapore

Long ago in the early days of Singapore, "foodies" who love to eat and share their heritage Singapore food experiences had to pass by their words of mouth.

The roadside stalls in Chinatown, Hock Lam Street, Whampoa Street, Waterloo Street, Geylang Serai or "Little India" where the ethnic foodage in multi-racial Singapore were located.

Travelling hawkers or itinerant hawkers travelled from house-to-house or door-to-door in the kampongs to sell their goods. It was a common sight to see the hawkers carrying their paraphernalia and moving about either on foot or on bicycles.

Photo credit:  National Archives of Singapore

Most of these portable hawkers who travelled to the kampongs in Singapore were not stationed in a fixed location, time or day for their business.  To look for the best travelling "laksa" hawker, it would meet him by coincidence or by luck.  There were no food review of these hawker stalls in the newspapers or other media channels in those days.

Today, the "Heritage Singapore Food" group on Facebook here.

[This group is dedicated to sharing of knowledge about the food of Singapore, especially those that could be on the way to extinction.  Given the awareness, much of these food could still remain in our community.  Much has been lost because they were not shared from generation to generation.

We have to try to share much of what we know before many of these shops in Singapore close down for lack of interests from the customers and anyone who might want to continue with the business.

Heritage food has a place in our society.  Food - taste, smell and sight, even touch - is one of the multi-sensory experience that triggers us to our memories of our past, our childhood, our encournter with our grandma or grandpa, or even old friends.  Think about it.  Come and share!]

A related blog on this topic about food posted here .

Mad  about makan

As Singapore's appetite grew, so did the ST's food fare, Tan Hsueh Yun catches a whiff.

It  could well be the first ode to this thorny fruit in the English language.  Up Durian, a poem published in The Sunday Times in 1931, is just one pungent example of Singapore's obsession with food.

Over the years, The Straits Times and The Sunday Times have made space for durian news and views, reporting such milestones as the opening of the first durian restaurant in 1983.  A year later, the fruit broke the smell barrier - it appeared in supermarkets stripped of its shell and packed in plastic.  The arrival of Thai durian - fleshy, sweet, abundant and available practically year round - freed durian-mad foodies from the twice-a-year Malaysian durian season.

And about seven years ago, designer durians from Malaysia began infiltrating the local market.

Grafts developed by Malaysia's Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority launched a new durian-by-numbers game as fans welcomed the D24, also called the Sultan durian,

XO durian, or Jinlong (Golden Dragon) durian by retailers; the D2, with a twisted, longish body; the gourd-shaped D96; the D13 with its reddish and sweet flesh, and others.  The fruit inspired a Life! cover story last year, titled Everything You Need To Know About Durians In Singapore.

Any lingering doubts about the national passion were laid to rest by these facts cited in the report:  In 1993, Singapore imported 36,748 tonnes of durians in all or almost $50 million worth.

And durian sellers even accept orders by fax now, observed Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in his National Day Rally Speech last year.  He said "Perhaps you think ordering durians by fax is not really remarkable.  But if you think about it, you will realize that our lifestyle has changed, and everyone is doing better than before."  It was not the first time food had leapt from the lifestyle pages into the news pages.

In the aftermath of the Japanese Occupation, food was often in the news too.  But it was shortage not abundance that made headlines in those difficult days.  Days after liberation, the Sept 10, 1945 edition of the paper announced on Page 2 that the British Military Administration was distributing free rice, sugar and salt to everyone in Singapore.

Singaporeans had been left high and dry with the newly worthless Japanese paper money or banana money as it was dubbed.

Food rationing, price controls on certain food items and black-market activities made headlines in the months that followed.  In June 1946, it was reported that the nutrition level of Malayans had improved, although not yet restored to pre-war levels.

In good times, the authorities have tried to ensure that lessons of the past are not lost.

So there is no shortage of reports and advertisements on Civil Defence emergency food and water exercises, including survival cooking contests whose participants must spice limited ingredients with ingenuity to ship up imaginative meals.

But it is the lifestyle pages that ST  readers most associate with food.  Recipes started appearing in women's pages of the 1930s.  Nestling between reports on the latest fashion were recipes for Spanish Eggs, Toad In The Ring and other savouries for supper.

The space devoted along with the appetites of its readers.  They took on a more local flavor, with the recipes using ikan merah, brinjal and tropical fruit such as soursop, for example.

By the late 1970s, whole pages or even more were being devoted to food.  Two pages in the Saturday edition focused on food in Gourmet column.  The Sunday Times' Weekender section had its own restaurant reviews, recipes and reports of food trends.  It was during this time that two hugely influential food writers, Violet Oon  and Margaret Chan, began writing for The Sunday Times.

Photo courtesy:  The Straits Times

In the hands of these and other writers, the food pages became a travel guide to whole new culinary experiences.  It became a common sight to see patrons arriving at restaurants armed with The Sunday Times, opened to the page where the outlet had received a favourable review.

Even more common: good review cut out, framed and hung prominently at the entrance as a welcome sign by passers-by.

Through the ST, readers devoured news of restaurants serving nouvelle cuisine, Hongkong aphrodisiacs, and Thai, Greek, Japanese and Italian food.  Sushi is now a part of Singapore's food landscape, but in 1983, it was novel enough for the newspaper to run a step-by-step guide to appreciating raw fish.

More recently, long queues at a supermarket for inexpensive, individually-wrapped sushi attracted readers' attention.

Before the sushi salvo landed, Italian food had roared in, with 10 new Italian restaurants opened in 1993 alone, marching to the beat of a $50-million-a-year industry.

Food-watchers informed readers about the arrival of other new tastes, from American delicatessen and Brazilian barbecue to razhnichi and filled paprika from Yugoslavia.

Mediterranean is the latest flavour of the month, with the cuisine of southern Europe doing a star turn in restaurants and tapas bars.

Throughout, hawker food remained a staple in the food pages as columnists ferreted out the best vendors from roadside to coffeeshop to food centre.  It may be down-market but hawker food gets due respect: as a classic of Singapore's cultural heritage.  Dishes originating in Singapore and Malaya inspired feats of investigative journalism.

In a 1984 Sunday Times story, Margaret Chan traced the beginnings of fried Hokkien prawn noodles to a Hokkien immigrant who had started a Rochor Road stall a century earlier.  His assistant later set up his own business and taught four friends who started stall all over the island, selling "Rochor Mee".

Hainanese chicken rice, as it is known and loved today, is also a local creation, according to a story celebrating Singapore Classics in ST's 1993 National Day supplement.

Another Sunday Times story relates that curry chicken noodles was created by Mr Tay Yong Heng, whose father sold fried carrot cake.  Mr Tan dished it up in Synagogue Street almost 30 years ago before moving to Hong Lim Food Centre.

Food writers also tracked the modernisation of traditional fare.  In 1971, hawker food went high class and was featured in the Mandarin Hotel's cofeehouse menu.  From the mid-1980s, it was offered in privately-run, air-conditioned food centres, though in the 1970s, cholesterol phobia was already beginning to temper the island-wide passion for chao guotiao fried with lard, and chicken rice glistening with fat.

The food pages responded by offering healthy recipes, and reviewing vegetarian restaurants and salad bars.  The runaway success of supermarkets selling only vegetarian food also made the news.

And yes, there were also recipes for healthier versions of hawker favourites - chicken rice served with skinless chicken and the rice cooked in stock instead of chicken fat.

The ST's news pages even had a chao guotiao test, asking Singaporeans to try out a healthier version cooked using less lard and with slices of fishcake and squid replacing the cockles and eggs.  These adjustments, said a nutritionist, gave the dish a lower cholesterol and fat level than the original recipe.  The testers gave the healthier version the thumbs up.

With such updates to old recipes, Singaporeans have not lost touch with hawker fare or home cooking.  Said food expert Violet Oon: "What I find charming is that after dabbling in international sophistication, Singaporeans are going back to their roots.  Executives in their 30s will say, 'I like my chao guotiao, I don't have to lke foie gras.'"

She called it coming back to mother's food.  Said Ms Oon: "In the face of a changing world, some things have to be the same in your world.  Maybe it will be the trend of the 1990s."

Source:  The Straits Times 150 Years Collectors Edition on July 15, 1995. (NB: The photos on this blog are not included in the newspapers).



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