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Sweet/savoury glutinous rice. - ART DIRECTION CHRIS FOO. PHOTOGRAPHY KEVIN YANG

Same Old Same Old

Even as Singapore's heritage foods start to disappear, a valiant bunch of old faithfuls is trying to preserve tradition, as David Yip learns.
Nov 5, 2016 5:50 AM

Whether it's Singapore's hawker heritage or traditional foods that Baby Boomers grew up eating in the 60s and 70s, the lament is the same: either the hawkers or restaurants that specialised in them aren't around anymore, or they just can't find any young ones to pick up the mantle.

But rather than reminisce about the food we're not eating anymore, a small group is determined to keep things as they were. It's thanks to them that some foods of yesterday are still on the table today.

FENG This uniquely Eurasian dish dates back to the days of the first Portuguese sea expeditions in Asia in search of valuable spices. They brought animals on board the ships for meat, and the scarcity of food meant that nothing was wasted. Which meant that off-cuts and innards ended in a stew with spices and eaten for days.

Inter-marriage between the Portuguese and locals in colonial Malacca resulted in a new Eurasian - or Cristang - ethnicity and a cuisine that was a mashup of Asian spices and European cooking methods. Among its specialities is the innards stew that evolved into the elaborate feng, a time-consuming braise requiring the cleaning of everything from intestines to tripe. It became a special occasion dish, especially for Christmas, but even then, few households do it now. The only place you can find it is at Quentin's - the stalwart Eurasian eatery.

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PANG SUSI It's a seemingly simple meat bun, but near impossible to find if not for Mary Gomes - a Eurasian chef who still runs her tiny cafe in Waterloo Street. There are many versions - Eurasian and Peranakan - but Ms Gomes learned to make hers from her mother, who was born in Malacca.

Her dough is made from sweet potato, butter, egg, flour and yeast.

While others taste strongly of coriander seed, hers rely heavily on cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg and cloves. Traditionally, the pang susi is served on Easter Sunday among Catholics to celebrate the end of Lent.

Other Eurasian favorites to enjoy at the cafe include Shepherd's Pie and devil curry.

FRIED RICE DUMPLING Hidden in a quiet corner of Chinatown Complex, Hee Siew Leng has been selling local snacks for more than 30 years, including deep-fried sweet potato balls, kueh ubi kayu and the long-forgotten deep-fried Chinese dumpling. "I don't know where this recipe came from, but my mother used to make it at home," says Mdm Hee.

Its origins can actually be traced to a tiny district in Guangdong Province where the black and white ma jie, or domestic helper of colonial days, came from. Initially made from leftover rice that was refried, it's likely that these helpers brought the recipe with them. Here, it gradually evolved into the more familiar kee chang, an alkaline glutinous rice dumpling coated with light batter and deep-fried.

SWEET/SAVOURY GLUTINOUS RICE When Niu Che Shui Famous Glutinous Rice closed its doors in 2012 after 40 years, fans thought its unique sweet and savoury glutinous rice was gone forever. It had been run by two elderly gents who closed shop when one of them fell ill.

Enter Steven Lam. Retrenched from the engineering manufacturing industry, he managed to replicate Niu Che Shui's recipe, which he now sells at the same food center. When asked about its origin, he surmises, "The Cantonese have their own steamed version of glutinous rice, topped with soft peanuts, while the Teochews offer sweet glutinous rice. The original sellers must have combined both cultures and people loved it."

This dish - prepared by Mr Lam, who is Hakka but pulling together Cantonese and Teochew cooking styles, is a prime example of how the different dialect groups have assimilated into a melting pot that is uniquely Singaporean.

ROTI MARIAM The story goes that Roti Mariam was created by a woman of the same name who sold this unique roti (bread) from a pushcart in Kampong Glam. A cross between naan and prata, it's eaten with plain sugar, condensed milk or curry.

The Islamic Restaurant later hired her and put her roti on the menu.

To older folks, the Roti Mariam is nearly synonymous with the iconic Islamic restaurant, where its fusion of Arab and Indian cuisine has made it the leading venue for Muslim weddings and other big events for 100 years. Good to know it's still a custodian of old school flavours as well.

COCONUT CANDY If you're of a certain vintage, coconut candy would have been a childhood treat before the likes of Glico Pocky and White Rabbit. Grated coconut, sugar and evaporated milk were all that were needed for a sugar high. The recipe was featured in Ellice Handy's - Singapore's Julia Child - cookbook first printed in 1952 and a common recipe taught in schools when domestic science was part of the curriculum.

Few people think about it now, but if you're ever in the mood for a sweet taste of nostalgia, head to Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry. Owner Jenny Tan reprises this and other old-school kueh made from recipes passed down from her Hainanese father who learned pastry-making onboard British naval ships in the '50s. A limited amount is handmade in the kitchen and makes a quirky kid's party snack or any retro-themed bash.


Quentin's Eurasian Restaurant
Eurasian Community House
139 Ceylon Road
T. 6348 0327

Mary's Kafe
1 Queen's Street
Kum Yan Methodist Church
T. 9852 0348

Xiang Xiang Cooked Food
#02-68 Chinatown Complex

Millenium Glutinous Rice
#02-92 Chinatown Complex

Islamic Restaurant
745 North Bridge Road
T. 6298 7563

Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry
Blk 55 Tiong Bahru
Road #01-39
T. 6324-1686

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