A quick perusal of Christopher Tan’s Instagram page quickly reveals his obsessions: kueh, baked goods, cookbooks, and the occasional cat. The accomplished cookbook author and culinary instructor is, after all, the writer of The Way of Kueh, an incredibly detailed tome of recipes and stories of, well, kueh. In addition to two decades of experience in food writing and teaching, Tan is also involved with Slow Food Singapore, an organisation formed in 2013 to champion heritage foods.
“I have always loved local food and I have always found traditional cuisines from anyplace really interesting. Food to me is always the most visceral introduction to, and the most easily accessible part of, any culture. It could hardly be otherwise, when we spend so many hours in a week eating,” shares Tan
For Tan, the love for food goes far beyond pure gastronomic pleasure. It’s oftentimes an anthropological undertaking, especially with his love for vintage cookbooks.
“Curious, illuminating, and sometimes strange,” these vintage cookbooks would sometimes showcase forgotten recipes, or reveal the very different predecessors of some of today’s dishes. They provide “snapshots of other times and other places… and others’ food lives.” – giving valuable insight to how the nation cooked, and by extension, ate.
A charity cookbook from 1960, Good Food from Singapore, for example, showed the varied, multicultural palate of the country. With recipes from “locals, expats and members of the military and diplomatic corps”, the cookbook lists a recipe for fish moolie alongside seafood mousse; while offering at least three different styles of chicken curry; and a recipe for elderflower wine that’s meant to provide an analogue for Sauternes.
“The elements of vintage cookbooks which I find the most fascinating are cooking techniques or ingredient combinations that are rare or extinct – bits of knowledge which are no longer common currency and which would have been lost to time, but which those books’ authors mercifully preserved for readers.
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For instance, somewhere on my bookshelf is an Alaskan cookbook with recipes for moose…not that I could or would cook that, but it’s an intriguing read. Closer to home, I also have a community church cookbook with several rare local recipes – a traditional Nyonya assam (tamarind) curry with salted fish and vegetables, three different pig’s brain dishes, a kurmah curry of meat-stuffed snake gourd, and such,” reveals Tan.
Like language, culture and eating habits evolve over time – which can sometimes lead to some things being lost to history.
Laments Tan, “One’s food knowledge and eating preferences are hugely shaped in one’s early life – what we are exposed to and what we become familiar with when we are children and young adults determine our mature palates. Once upon a time, home cooking was the prevalent influence on this.
But not any more, apparently. Any casual survey of food-related media now will show you that the things which seemingly preoccupy us now are imported food trends and restaurant concepts, visiting celeb chefs or celeb eatery pop-ups from overseas, media celebrities trying to make a new name for themselves in F&B, and hawker fare rebooted or mashed up with luxury ingredients. Home cooking hardly gets a look-in.
As I’ve parsed in The Way of Kueh and elsewhere, every dish we now see as traditional was once a home-cooked dish. Many if not most hawker dishes began life as home food cooked for the family.
Yesterday’s home cooking has become today’s heritage cuisine and ‘national dishes’. So what will tomorrow’s heritage food be, based on what Singaporeans are cooking at home now? Pasta? Katsu sando?…We have become so accustomed to outsourcing our meal preparation to someone else – a restaurant, a domestic helper, the corner tze-char, Grabfood – that the home kitchen’s fires of innovation are in danger of flickering out.”
The “celebration of home cooking”, it seems, hangs at a precipice. Tan draws the example of Ellice Handy’s My Favourite Recipes, the first-ever cookbook on Singaporean food. Published in 1952 – with the latest edition printed as recently as 2012 – the cookbook was owned by, and influenced an entire generation of home cooks.
Thankfully, the cookbooks are being written – all that remains is for a new generation of home cooks to embrace – in Tan’s words – this “time-honoured genre of skilled crafting and culture-making”.
Featured image: Ang Ku Kueh from Ji Xiang confectionary; Yi Bua and Bua Da’art (credit: The Way of Kueh)