John Harper Remembers


John Harper remembers Singapore - Part 4 : Food

Singapore Belt

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My brothers, Tom and Bob with Sati, the Amah, in the garden at Meteor Road, Tengah

The great bard said “If music be the food of love – play on”. For me it was more a case of “Love the food – let the music play on”. Singapore food was and still is famed for its variety, quality and taste. You can find every taste of the globe in Singapore. It was a family ritual to go to the families club overlooking Changi airfield every Sunday for lunch. For the first few weeks, as my brothers and I were fairly young and unadventurous with food, it was egg and chips with lashings of tomato sauce. Each week our parents would try to persuade us to try something from the Asian food part of the menu. Each week we steadfastly refused and ordered egg and chips. I was the first to give in and was persuaded to try the special fried rice. There was ham, chicken and prawns in it. After the first mouthful I thought “wow, why have I been so silly and been insisting on egg and chips all these weeks”. I would like to say that I branched out into all sorts of dishes, but no, fried rice was safe and I stuck with that for some time. Eventually I did get more adventurous and started to work my way down the menu.

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Old photo of food stall in Bugis Street; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Once a week, one of the restaurants in Changi Village made curry puffs, a parcel of curried minced meat in puff pastry. Curry was something that we had experienced back home in the UK; you know the fairly mild stuff with apple and raisins in it. We quickly adapted to the stronger taste and heat of real curry and the curry puffs were a regular favourite. After a few months in Singapore, my father instituted a family tradition of going into the city on the first Sunday of each month. It was always fairly predictable, taxi in to the Union Jack club and we boys would spend a couple of hours in the swimming pool being fed Cocoa Cola when we got thirsty. Dad of course, would be slaking his thirst with Tiger or Anchor beer. After the pool we would then go to the Islamic restaurant on Beach Road.

Islamic Restaurant Beach Road
Photo of Islamic Restaurant taken in 1998 (John Harper)
It was here that we were introduced to Indian curry. I have to admit I was a bit worried at the thought of possibly a very hot curry and went into defensive mode. “Do they have fried rice?” I asked. “Well sort of” my father replied, “ but it’s a little bit different to Chinese fried rice and it is called Briyani”. A little fearfully I said, “OK I’ll have a prawn Briyani”. Brother Tom followed suit and after a bit of humming and hawing Bob agreed to try it as well.

The food arrived and “Wow” Mum and Dad had ordered chicken curry of some sort and we were given side dishes of boiled egg, mango pickle, pineapple, peanuts and shreds of coconut. The three dishes of Briyani arrived with their dishes of curry sauce. The table was groaning under the weight of it all. The taste was absolutely out of this world. I had never tasted anything like it before in my life. The combination of spices, the fresh prawns and the flavoursome rice was the epitome of perfection. Instant conversion, even to this day, Prawn Briyani is one of my favourite dishes. I’m drooling at the thought of it even now almost fifty years later.

Curry now became a regular part of our diet. My mother even sent a recipe back to her friend in the UK who had originally given her the recipe for curry with raisins and apple in it. She included several side notes in it like, “Yes that really is dessert spoons and not teaspoons”, and a warning “You’ll find that it has a very warming sensation.”

Food seemed to be an integral part of being in Singapore. In fact one thing that you are often asked is not, “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” As you walked along the five foot way you would often come across somebody sat with a clay pot charcoal barbecue cooking sticks of Satay. Satay is another of the wonderful dishes of Asia. Meat is marinated in a spicy sauce with chillies, ginger, lemon grass to name but a few of the ingredients and served with a spicy sauce containing coarsely ground roast peanut. As darkness fell, Changi Village would come alive with hawker stalls. Often the self-contained stall was built around a tricycle making it extremely mobile. They would be lit with a paraffin fuelled Tilley lamp. The most popular dish seemed to be noodles, which of course came in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

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Photo of a satay stall of old; courtesy of (Memories of Singapore)

Food arriving on bicycle wheels seemed to be a normal part of everyday life. The Magnolia ice cream man would arrive, park his bike on the stand, one of those pull-down jobs on the back wheel that lifted the back wheel off the ground. The ice cream was in an insulated box mounted on the carrier over the back wheel. He would ring his hand bell as soon as he had parked his bike and be surrounded by mothers and children seeking to purchase his wares. Inside the insulated box must have been like a timelord’s Tardis because there were family sized blocks, wafer blocks in a variety of favours, and ice lollies, milky strawberry or plain milky, blackcurrant, strawberry and even Durian ice lollies.

Durian is a fruit that I can only describe as an acquired taste that I never managed to acquire just as I have never acquired a taste for some of the riper cheeses. To me the smell of the fruit was like an open sewer. Even on returning to the east several times over the intervening years, I find that I just cannot get my nose past that smell despite trying several times. It has been described as having the smell of a drain but a taste like heaven. It is a highly prized fruit for Asians and it is a great compliment to be offered a slice. I found that I had to mentally close my nostrils and try to keep them closed whilst I ate the fruit. It never really worked and it is probably the only fruit that I have never taken to despite my best efforts. My brother Bob however quite liked durian. His work often took him to Asia, (lucky man), and he used to tell the tale of how he once bought a couple of durians and walked through Robinsons department store. By the time he left the store, there were six female sales assistants following him and the aroma of his durians.

Fruit of course was another food that arrived on bicycle wheels. The fruit seller was known as Mary and she had an amazing variety of fruit for sale. There were pineapples, apples and oranges, mangosteens and my particular favourite rambutan. The rambutan is related to the Lychee but the skin has long hairy like protrusions that give it its name, as rambut is Malay for hair. This might sound a little off-putting but the red skin peels away easily just as if you were peeling a thick skinned orange and then inside you find what looks a little bit like a white plum. The white fruit covers a stone. Biting into the fruit it is juicy, fragrant and sweet without being excessively sour. Describing the fragrance is difficult and all I can say is that it is rambutan. If pressed I would describe it as floral, sweet maybe a hint of lavender, maybe a hint of orange but only the vaguest hint as the fragrance is so subtle. This might all sound a bit pretentious or even a bit wine buff, but I can only say; well that’s rambutans and I love them and I would gladly pay the air fare to go back and taste them again and again if only I could afford it.

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Having mentioned Mary I must digress from the topic of food and in doing so I make no apologies as I am raising a very interesting and important point. Mary was an extremely exceptional lady, not only did she give rambutans to the children who patronised her stall, which in my book made her pretty special, she had also been awarded the O.B.E. She was really a special lady, as some of the prisoners of war in Changi Prison will testify. She played an important part in helping escaped prisoners and it was for this that she was warded the O.B.E. On the return to British rule, she was granted the freedom to sell her fruit anywhere on the military bases at Changi. I know this is only a short paragraph but Mary probably merits a whole book to herself and I hope that somebody will do the research one day on a topic that will reward the researcher tenfold.

So having made that important digression from the subject of food let us return to the topic in hand. I was going to say that one of the strangest fruit was the Pomelo but there are probably other candidates with equal provenance to the claim. Anyway, the Pomelo was a fruit we tried and it was a citrus fruit about the size of a melon that was like a cross between a grapefruit but not as bitter, and a fragrance with a hint of orange. The flesh inside was segmented in a typical citrus fashion but inside the segments the soft bead like structure of an orange or lemon was a bit more fibrous and you could remove little sachets of fruity, juicy material and pop them in your mouth one by one.

I mentioned Mangosteens earlier, the skin is semi-hard and purple and likely to stain whatever it comes into contact with. The flesh inside once again is juicy and distinctive, impossible to liken to anything from Europe. All I can say is, travel to the Far East and try for yourself.

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To correct any impression you might have that life was one exotic eating orgy (maybe it was) the amah used to prepare what we consider as perfectly normal English dishes. Her repertoire included egg and chips, mince and mash, pork chops with peas and mash as well as the exotic dishes like curry. Sunday roasts were very rare though as it was the amah’s day off and we usually went to the families club for lunch (special fried rice).

Singapore changed my outlook on food. Rice was no longer a dish that was served as a sweet pudding. Rice had a thousand and one possibilities; it also came in many varieties although at this time I was only able to differentiate two types, short grain for rice puddings and long grain for savoury dishes. Nowadays I prefer boiled rice to boiled potatoes but I do have to admit that any form of fried potato is almost equal to any form of rice, boiled, fried or risotto. The one exception to this would be “congee” or rice porridge. It’s a nice non-irritant dish when you have diarrhoea but it has nothing else much to commend it although the Tanjong Pagar area of Singapore is noted for it where it is served with all sorts of extras (it needs it).

It was almost impossible to avoid soggy breakfast cereals with the high humidity and we very quickly adapted to the Australian version of Weetabix called Weet Bix. The biscuit was a lot harder and seemed very resistant to humidity problems. Fresh milk was virtually unheard of and so powdered milk (KLIM) was the norm. We had a special mixer for making up the milk. A tall glass cylinder was three quarter filled with water from the refrigerator, powdered milk added and then a plunger with perforations in the disc introduced into the cylinder to push the powdered milk up and down to get it to wet out and dissolve. It required several minutes of vigorous pumping to get all the powder to dissolve.

As well as the all time favourites Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola a whole range of soft drinks were available at the NAAF and swimming pool including Ice Cream Soda, Sarsaparilla, Lemonade, Orangeade, Cherryade and Ginger Beer. Ice cream soda was nice with a scoop of ice cream in it and was known as an Ice Cream Soda float. Other favourites at the pool were the Coconut Ice slabs and my good friend Raymond Clayton reminded me recently that you could also get giant pickled onions at the pool. I met up with Raymond 40 years after we had been in Singapore after bumping into his elder brother at a Singapore schools reunion that was held in London. The reunion is also a chance to relive the food as the group usually goes on to Soho for a Chinese meal.

I’m also pleased to say that I still enjoy food in Singapore whenever I have made visits related to my work. I am a fan of the food courts and hawker stalls. Early childhood influences have certainly left their mark on my food preferences.

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