{Bibliotherapy}: Feel-Good Food

In Singapore, we love food. We love talking about it, queuing for it and devouring it. In this blog post, we talk about all things food!

“All these dishes, practices and tastes of bygone years are just distant memories today, and yet they are part of our cultural heritage. Every forgotten food recalls a precious memory of life as it used to be and a history that was shared.”

— Food writer Sylvia Tan on BiblioAsia

Where did people in early Singapore go for fine dining?

Journalist Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Feed at the Raffles Hotel when visiting Singapore”. Raffles’ Dining Room, which was capable of seating 500, played host to many indulgent dinners — supervised by two French chefs.

With fancy dishes, you’ll have fancy names, but you’ll have no idea what you’ll be served. Just look at these Raffles menu cards from the 1930s. Mixed Grilled Raffles? Sounds like Raffles didn’t like to get roasted.

A selection of Raffles Hotel menu cards from the 1930s.

Read more about the lavish parties and fine dining at Raffles Hotel here:

Pairing excellent food with excellent drinks?

In the Good Food from Singapore, there are recipes for distinct types of wines with local flavour — coconut wine, ginger wine and even rambutan wine!

The book features not just Singaporean dishes; it also encompasses Sudani, Polish and Italian dishes, and even includes the banquet menu used on the occasion of the birthday of H.H. The Sultan of Johore held at Istana Besar, Johore Bahru Khamis. Check out the range of recipes here:

“The history of the world is on your plate. All food is the expression of a long struggle and a long story.”— Anthony Bourdain

In Singapore, the history of food extends beyond recipes and ingredients. When we think of sambal stingray, East Coast Lagoon Hawker Centre or Chomp Chomp may come to mind.

Here’s one that we personally haven’t heard of before: Glutton’s Square.

If the name sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of Makansutra Gluttons Bay next to The Esplanade. Glutton’s Square, on the other hand, was one of the few open-air street dining areas in the 1970s.

1977, Glutton’s Square, where there were rows of makeshift food stalls selling a variety of Chinese, Indian and Malay food. The tables and stools for patrons are typical of such open-air food centres during the 1970s. Source: Paul Piollet Collection, Courtesy of the National Library Board

Located at a carpark along Orchard Road, opposite Centrepoint shopping mall, it was also infamously known as “Jaws Centre” because some hawkers charged high prices to unsuspecting tourists. Now, you might wonder: “If it was so popular, where is it now?”

In 1978, poor environmental and hygiene conditions led to the closure of Glutton’s Square. The government moved 32 hawkers to Newton Circus Hawker Centre, while the rest moved to the nearby Cuppage Food Centre. The last of the hawkers left the Orchard Road carpark on Sunday, 3 September 1978, and the area was converted to a park in November 1978.

Coffeeshop Manner

Eating and drinking at coffeeshops is a way of life in Singapore. It’s cheap, humble and homely. An example of a traditional establishment we thought of is the Indian-Muslim tea stall, commonly known as a Sarabat stall. Today, only a handful of traditional Sarabat stalls exist.

Sarabat, probably comes from the Persian word “sharabat” referring to an aromatic drink. In Singapore, sarabat stalls are traditional Indian-Muslim coffeeshops you would find along streets or around the corner (they were more commonplace in the good old days), where they would serve a variety of local beverages, besides sarabat. The sarabat drink in Singapore, as described in The Straits Times article below, is a “tangy invigorating drink made from ginger, sugar and milk”.

It is also such a treat to watch the sarabat man “pull” your drink, pouring it quickly from one container to another with outstretched arms. This method helps to cool it down and also gives it that nice froth, perfect for drinking immediately.

Any respectable coffee must come with at least 1cm of froth on top.

Read this guide to ordering at a ‘real’ sarabat stall by Kitchi Boy, in this 1979 Straits Times article:

Mobile Hawkers

An itinerant hawker bringing wares to villagers of Jalan Jumat Malay Village, 1949. Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore
A customer eating satay while sitting on a stool at a roadside. He is using the hawker’s basket as a table. The hawker is attending to the other basket where the sticks of satay are being grilled. Source: PictureSG; Kouo Shang-Wei Collection, courtesy of the National Library Board

You know the Muffin Man, but do you know the tok-tok man, the ting-ting man, or the tikam-tikam man?

The first two were affectionately named after the sounds they used to announce their arrival, and the latter was known for the gambling game you would play with the vendor for snacks. During the 19th century to mid-20th century, these itinerant hawkers had mobile carts or baskets which they used to bring food and snacks around residential areas, selling them directly to people in the neighbourhood. A hawker would sling the two baskets between a pole on his shoulders to carry his wares from location to location.

It’s a pity these trades have vanished in modern Singapore.

Read more about forgotten mealtime memories by food writer Sylvia Tan on BiblioAsia:

And finally — recipe for long life 😂

The secret to living to 103 years old. Source: NewspaperSG, The Singapore Free Press, 6 July 1961

Thank you for returning for another read on our {Bibliotherapy} series! As we ease into Phase 2, may you be able to enjoy your favourite meals with loved ones once again. Stay safe!

Explore our NL and NAS platforms, where you’ll find an expansive collection of historical resources for a lifetime of learning.

Brought to you by the marketing folks at the National Library, overjoyed to be reunited with our friends and family.

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Singapore’s premier resource centre for materials on or about Singapore and the region.