The Origins of Singapore’s Hawker Fare

The Origins of Singapore’s Hawker Fare

You may have queued for hours to watch Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay struggle to master the local dish, laksa [loosely translated to spicy sand in Chinese]. You probably didn’t know that earthworms were added to the well-loved dish in the 1950s or that bowls of mee pok were delivered to shophouses via an innovative pulley system.

These and other fascinating facts will bowl you over in Historia SG 2013‘s thematic food tour. Jump into the time machine and unravel some intriguing facts about street food during your grandparents’ time at the National Museum of Singapore.

A yearly affair since 2012, Historia 2013 recounts the cultural history of Singapore with a series of free events ranging from exhibitions, talks, and performances.

One highlight this year is “Dig In: Stories of Singaporean Street Food”, that spells out the rich heritage of our unique food. Held on June 15 and 16, the free tour showcases fare of the 1950s to 1970s, when hawkers literally sold their wares on streets. A wide array of representative dishes are featured, from the ubiquitous Hainanese chicken rice to everyone’s favorite skewered meat, satay. Experience how the older generation satisfied their prata cravings or got their char kway teow fix with its immersive interactive audio and visual stations that make you feel as though you’re a resident of the yesteryear.

A celebration of all things gastronomically unique to Singapore, the exhibition cum tour displays local street food at its best. Here are some of highlights, that helped us appreciate our local chow a lot more:

Kueh Tutu

Whether you’re a grandfather or a teen, many Singaporeans can probably recall getting a tongue-scalding bite of this white steamed cake as they slowly made their way to the sweet grated coconut or peanut filling. Affectionately named after the ‘tutu’ sound made by the whistling boiling water, these delicate rice flour cakes were made with a flower-like brass mould in the past. According to the tour, when they were first created in the early 1900s, they were sold on bicycles attached to large metal steamers. These were then made without any filling and traditionally eaten as breakfast snack. As time progressed, hawkers started adapting the recipe to cater to local taste buds by adding grated coconut and ground peanuts as a filling. They were and still are sold on pieces of pandan [screwpine] leaves for a sweet fragrance.

The making of the Kueh Tutu is a deceptively difficult skill to master. First, the rice flour must be finely pounded and sifted several times to allow for the familiar lightness and airiness of the cake. Next, the desiccated coconut has to be fried for hours over low heat. Palm sugar is added to the mixture. Then, the mold is filled with a flour-filling flour combination and is lightly pressed down with a muslin cloth. Finally, steaming the petite cakes has to be done with one swift action when the mold is flipped to stand to allow steam to cook through the cake.

Laksa

Who knew that Laksa’s name isn’t derived from an Asian country but from Persia? According to the tour’s Mandarin docent, it was first referred to as laksha [noodles in Iranian] even before the Bahasa word rendition, sepuluh ribu [10 thousand] of the dish came about. The dish is believed to have its roots in Malacca where the Persians were frequent traders at the port.

Consisting of fairly thick rice flour noodles, laksa’s served with a coconut milk based gravy and topped with cockles and bean sprouts. To many fans of this Malaccan dish, the gravy forms the heart of it, and it’s often a way to tell the good from the bad. Rempah, a spice paste consisting of chilies, star anise, lemongrass, turmeric, and coriander seeds, is pounded to form a consistency similar to that of a puree. The laksa gravy is then brought to life when the paste is combined with the coconut milk, forming a rich and creamy sauce. Its characteristic fragrance comes from the garnish of chopped laksa leaf [knotweed]. Note: Earthworms were a regular addition to the recipe for their “saltiness,” and maggots were also included to “eat away bacteria.”

A hybrid of Malay and Chinese cuisine, the savoury dish was previously associated with the Peranakans [Straits born Chinese]. A variant of the original is now commonly sold by the Chinese with no Malay heritage in their family line. Over the years, modifications have been made, with the well-known Katong Laksa, adding prawns, fish cake, and taupok, a deep-fried bean curd.

Satay

The thought of gnawing on the succulent meat of a satay stick over a shared meal with pals through the night at a bus terminal may be unthinkable for us today, but it’s an actual memory of people in their 60s and 70s. When hawkers weren’t required to possess a license to sell food, many would set up their make-shift portable stalls at the bus terminal in the Beach Road district.

The formula of preparing and relishing the Indonesian dish was a different ball game back then. The spice-marinated lean meat was sandwiched between 2 chunks of pork fat, allowing flavourful juices to seep into the lean meat. For enhanced flavor, meat was speared through thin coconut leaf stems and crackled over a charcoal flame to achieve its smoky tastiness. Unlike today’s hygienic use of styrofoam bowls for peanut sauce, many would gather around the street peddlers dunking the skewers in the communal pot.

Though still present today, local delicacies of yesteryear harnessed somewhat of an irreplaceable quality from how it was prepared to how it was consumed. Waking up to a single petite piece of Kueh tutu would have easily made one’s day. Slurping on a bowl of full-flavored creamy noodles would have eased one under stress. Plunging fatty meat and trying to gain as much peanut gravy as possible served as simple entertainment between friends. Vicky Wong told UrbanWire, “Food, in particular, is a topic close to the heart of many Singaporeans and forms a big part of our local culture. In our context, a meal is not just about sustenance – it embodies family, kinship, relations.”

P.S.: As one that’s not an eloquent speaker of the Chinese language, having experienced a full on Mandarin based tour was a delightfully refreshing spin on the usual exhibitions and tours I frequent. I would admit that there were a couple of incidents where I had to bashfully ask the guide to translate the slang terms into proper English. As the only teenager amongst the tour group of the 40s–60s, boundaries might have been instantly drawn. However, the generation gap didn’t matter in the end, as all of us were there for one sole thing: Singaporean food.

Exhibition Details:

17–18 August 2013

3 pm to 4 pm

National Museum of Singapore

Free admission upon registration. Do note that the tour will be conducted in Mandarin.

More details of the event here.


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