Monday, March 29, 2010

Vintage cookbooks

Steamed garoupa
Kimpit Pedas
Sayur Godek Curry Chicken with potatoes

As I was still in a nostalgic mood, I decided to head down to my favourite haunt during my schoolgirl days - Bras Basah Complex. Back in those days, it was filled with school girls and boys and it was a respectable oogling place for geeky school kids. For me, I went there strictly for the books...ahem ! This place has changed quite a bit over the years. Popular Book store used to be only one of the many Chinese book shops here till it got really popular as its name says and mushroomed all over Singapore. Now its shop space takes up a large proportion of the complex. Most of the other Chinese book stores are gone but the Indian owned ones that deal with second hand books are still thriving. If you are looking for rare books, books that have long ceased publication or even British literature guide books, this is the place.

I actually had an agenda on that day. I was looking for old cookbooks specifically Singapore cookbooks. Don't recall any cookbooks written by Singaporeans on my mother's book shelves back in those days. Most of the ones she had originated from Britain. It had no pictures just words. No wonder my mum wasn't inspired to cook. In fact, looking back, my mum never cooked. She just had them on her book shelves for display. It was my "black and white" nanny who did all the cooking while I was there playing with my masak masak (cooking playset). My mum was a teacher who hardly ever stepped into the kitchen.

Singapore in the 60's and early 70's had lots of authentic good food from hawkers and chefs but hardly any one got around to write a cookbook then. Singapore had just gained independence and survival was more important. We also had a lower level of English literacy at that time and what's more, good chefs were very protective of their receipes. It was only in 1974 that Mrs Lee Chin Koon, the mother of Minister Mentor wrote Mrs Lee's Cookbook at the age of 67. Her book is now widely accepted as one of the authorities on Nonya cuisine in Singapore. The second lady was Mrs Lee's younger sister Madam Leong Yee Soo whose first cookbook The Best of Singapore Cooking was published in 1988. Today, Madam Leong's cookbooks are still best sellers as it carries an extensive range of Singapore food including hawker favourites. These ladies were visionary enough to share their receipes and leave a print on the Singapore culinary scene. Subsequently in the 80's and 90's, more and more cookbooks came about, written mainly by food editors of the Straits Times such as Sylvia Tan, Violet Oon and Terry Tan.

Back to Bras Basah Complex...yes, I spent such a lovely afternoon there browsing. Bought a number of old cookbooks such as Singapore Home Cooking (1980) and The Singapore Cookbook (first print 1976, last print 1990). The first states very briefly at the back that recipes came from Nancy Chua and Angelita Lanuza, with very charming black and white mugshots. Not in the least glamorous. In today's world, a successful cookbook centres around the chef, his or her family and lifestyle. The more flamboyant a chef is , the better. And if he or she has a TV show, ka-ching ! Life was simpler back then. These 2 books have a very extensive collection of Singapore receipes but there are some which I have not heard of such as Picked kunyit fish (featured on the cover of Singapore Home Cooking), Sayur Godek, a dish made of unripe jackfruits and Daun Paku (fernshoots) with salted fish . What's even more charming is the crockery used in the styling of the food. Pyrex ware in shades of blues and yellow and I can still remember the yellowish brown flower prints which were very popular way back. And long before we were on the metric system which made everything simpler, we were using the British imperial measurement system. Thus the use of kati and ounces in parts of the books.
Another treasure I found on the shelves was a cook book in pristine condition and surprisingly it was published in 1963. The book Practical Cookery was written by Helen Burke, a cooking correspondent of the Evening Standard and the Tatler in England.There are no pictures inside just like the ones on Mum's book shelves but the receipes seem to be written in a very precise, no nonsense way. One day, I would like to try her receipe for Duchess potatoes and fairy pudding. Sounds very colonial.

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