Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail ๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Roots of Singapore Hawker Food from The Empire Strikes Back to Independence 1945 - 1965

Singapore from the return of the British in 1945 to independence in 1965 was the most "interesting times" to cite an ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times". But, it was also a time of great creativity in Singapore's food scene with many of today's iconic dishes created during these 20 years.

Let's look at how chili crab, curry fish head, roti John, and more Singapore dishes came about.

The Japanese surrendered to the British on 15 August 1945, ending 3 years and 7 months of Japanese occupation. The people of Singapore came out of Japanese rule stronger and full of hope for the future. They've had enough of tapioca and kang kong.

But, economic recovery was painfully slow and food shortages persisted. After the Japanese occupation, many turned to the hawker trade as jobs were scarce. Many first time hawkers, not knowing what food to sell, simply took the dishes they ate at home to sell in the streets.   

Wong Yi Guan ็Ž‹ไน‰ๅ…ƒ, the first person to sell Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore took the dish he cooked at home and sold it in the Hainanese enclave of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street
. At first, he plied the streets with two baskets on a bamboo pole slung across his shoulders. He then settled down in a kopitiam stall at Purvis Street in the 1940s (thus opening the first Hainanese chicken rice stall in Singapore).

Swee Kee chicken rice in 1950. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
One of his workers Moh Lee Twee opened Swee Kee at Middle Road in 1949. It was a huge success and was responsible for popularising the dish throughout Singapore. In the 1971, Mandarin Hotel launched its chicken rice set in its Chatterbox coffee house. It elevated Hainanese chicken rice from street food to a 5-Star hotel dish, and put Singapore chicken rice on the world map. 

More on the history of Singapore chicken rice ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

Ng Juat Swee took his wife's family heirloom Nyonya laksa and sold it in the streets of Katong. It was not something Peranakans like to do but early post-war Singapore was hard times for everyone. The Peranakans are very proud of their heirloom recipes and non-Peranakans have a chance to taste them, only if they were lucky enough to be invited to their homes.

Hock Tong Hin coffee shop where Singapore's first Nyonya laksa stall was located. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Ng Juat Swee started by selling his Nyonya laksa at Katong beach from 2 pots which he carried on a bamboo pole across his shoulders. It was called Janggut Laksa because Ng Juat Swee had hair growing out of a mole on his chin. It was also called Katong Laksa because Ng Juat Swee's stall was in Katong. He later opened a stall together with his brother Ng Chwee Seng at Hock Tong Hin kopitiam at East Coast Road.

Ng Juat Swee's descendants still run Janggut Laksa outlets today. The Nyonya laksa recipe is no longer a secret, so laksa stalls run by non-Peranakans are found all over the island and many people make it at home.

More on the history of Katong laksa ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

More on the history of Peranakan cuisine ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

In 1948, the Communist Party of Malaya launched an insurrection killing 3 British civilians in Perak, Malaya. The British responded by declaring a state of emergency and engaged the communist insurgents in the Malayan jungles. The Malayan Emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960 when the communist insurgents were driven to jungle hideouts in southern Thailand. It was a hard fought war in the Malayan jungles - 6,710 CPM fighters, 1,864 British and Malayan soldiers, and 2,478 civilians were killed.

In the meantime, while holding off the communist insurgents, the wheels for self government for Singapore were turning. In 1959, Lee Kuan Yew of People's Action Party was elected Prime Minister of self-governing Singapore. A faction of PAP members split to form the Barisan Sosialis. PAP and Barisan Sosialis fought for the hearts and minds of the people in Singapore over the question of merger with Malaysia.

The people of Singapore led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew joined Malaysia (together with Sabah and Sarawak) when it was formed in 1963.

Indonesia did not like the idea of Malaysia and launched an undeclared war known as Konfrontasi which lasted from 1963 to 1966. Indonesian forces struck many targets in Singapore, including bombing a bank in MacDonald House at Orchard Road.


Racial riots took place in Geylang in July 1964 and again in September 1964 in Geylang Serai.


Against such an "interesting" backdrop, Singaporeans were a resilient bunch. None of the challenges of the time prevented us from enjoying our food. Our island was gifted with every culinary tradition - Malay, Indonesia, Chinese, Indian, Western etc which we adopted and adapted graciously into unique Singapore dishes that we enjoyed with gusto.

Mdm Cher Yam Tian's policeman husband used to go catch mud crabs on his off duty days near their home in Bedok (in the 1950s). Mdm Cher would cook the crabs the usual Teochew way, either steam or stir fry with julienned ginger. Feeling bored, Mdm Cher's husband asked if she could try another flavour, spicy perhaps?

So, Mdm Cher tried to cook crabs with chili, spices and sauces. After a few attempts, her picky eater husband gave his thumbs up. Mdm Cher shared her chili crabs with neighbours and they all loved it. Some even suggested that she set up a stall to sell her chili crab.

Mdm Cher was granted a temporary hawker licence to set up her chili crab stall at the beach along East Coast Road. Inspired by the idyllic scenery, her husband called their stall Palm Beach. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore  
So, Mdm Cher set up 2 tables and some stools at Bedok beach near her home in the evenings to sell her chili crabs. It was an instant hit. Her business grew quickly but health inspectors were constantly at her tail. Soon she set up a licensed stall known as Palm Beach to sell chili crabs full time. Mdm Cher's chili crab was widely emulated and today, there must be literally thousands of restaurants selling chili crab in Singapore and around the world.

More on the history of chili crab ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

Ng Seng who came to Singapore from Fujian in the 1940s was working in an iron workshop, and in the evenings, he would fry noodles for dinner. Ng Seng used discards or cheap ingredients like odd pieces of pork and skin, leftover squid and prawn from the market at Bugis Street to fry his noodles. Ng Seng's noodles were well infused with flavours from lard, and pork and prawn stock which his lucky friends all enjoyed with him.

Singapore's first fried Hokkien mee stall was at the five foot way at the foot of 7 Storey Hotel at Rochor Road. The dish was known then as "Rochor Mee". Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Ng Seng quit his iron shop job and started his fried noodle stall at Rochor Road in the 1950s. He didn't have a name for his dish, so it became known as "Rochor mee". The reputation of the noodles went far and wide, and soon stalls selling copycat versions of Ng Seng's noodles popped up around Singapore. Since these stalls were not at Rochor road, they started to call it "sotong mee" (squid noodle) but eventually settled on "fried Hokkien mee".

Singapore style "fried Hokkien mee" is one unique Singapore dish that cannot be found anywhere else, certainly not in China and not even just across the Causeway in Johor Bahru.

More on the history of Singapore Hokkien mee ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

There are a few versions of how Roti John came about but they all centre around a British serviceman named John. Actually, John is the generic name locals used for every Caucasian male. Roti John stalls were found wherever British soldiers were based i.e. British military bases in Changi, Sembawang, Tanglin etc.

As the story went, an enterprising sandwich seller named Abdul would call out to any passing British soldier "Roti! John!" which in Queen's English means "Would like to have a sandwich, John?".

Roti John helped John got back to base sober. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
It's a very basic sandwich of a small French loaf, halved and filled with a fried egg. It was popular with British soldiers who ate it just before descending on their favourite drinking spots like Bugis Street. Roti John helped kept John sober while partying.

Today's Roti John is much more elaborate with all kinds of meat fillings and sauces. John wouldn't recognise it if he was offered a Roti John today.

More on the history of Roti John ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

M.J. Gomez came to Singapore in the 1920s from Kerala in India and opened a shed at Sophia Street selling Kerala style curry rice. Around the 1950s, discarded Ikan Merah fish heads became available at the market. At that time, Ikan Merah wasn't a popular fish with locals as it was too big for traditional Malay, Indian or Chinese dishes. In particular, the Ikan Merah has an oversized head. But, it was popular with Caucasian families as Ikan Merah meat is like cod or haddock (or the closest thing you can get here). As Westerners fillet their fish and throw away the head, cheap or free of charge Ikan Merah fish heads were found in the markets.

M.J. Gomez's son said that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew came to try his father's curry fish head. According to his story, Mr. Lee's face "turned red" after the first spoonful. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
It is not clear how M.J. Gomez hit upon the idea of cooking Ikan Merah fish head with Kerala style curry. Perhaps it was one of his many Chinese customers as the Chinese have a tradition of eating fish heads such as steamed Song fish head. In any case, M.J. Gomez's Kerala curry fish head was an instant hit and was quickly emulated by Chinese as well as Indian restaurants. Now curry fish head is found everywhere in Singapore and Malaysia. The dish is now even found in India as M.J. Gomez returned to his hometown on retirement in the 1960s and brought the dish home with him.

More on the history of curry fish head ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

The exact origins of Indian rojak is unclear but one thing for sure, it is not from India. According to most accounts, it was created out of necessity, I mean commercial survival.

Our early Indian migrant hawkers first sold Indian street snacks like vadai but business wasn't good as the market for it was quite niche. Then, an enterprising Indian hawker observed that Malay and Chinese hawkers selling a mix of cut fruits and fried fritters tossed in savoury spicy sauce (rojak lah.. ) were doing much better business.

So, the creative Indian hawker came up with the idea of adding Malay and Chinese fried fritters to his Indian vadai. He also created a sweet spicy nutty sauce made mainly of sweet potato, chili, peanut, and spices to eat with all the fried fritters. And, thus Indian rojak was created.

The new dish was a great success. It is not known who this inventor of Indian rojak was, or where he sold his rojak, but the most famous place for it was the street hawker stalls at Waterloo Street just outside the former St. Joseph Institution. Today, most Singapore hawker centres have an Indian rojak stall.

More on the history of Indian rojak ๐Ÿ‘ˆ click

On 9 August 1965, Singapore became an independent country wholly responsible for its own affairs from economy to social affairs and the arts, from internal security to external defence and foreign affairs.

The story of Singapore food continues in the brave new world.

In the last episode - Singapore food from the Golden Age of the British Empire to Syonan-to of Japan.

In the next episode - Singapore food from Third World to First.

Date: 19 Jun 2020

No comments:

Post a comment

I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't. All comments with genuine identities are published.