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Singapore Hurry What's in a Curry

I have always been fascinated by curry. Not just because I love the delicious spicy flavours it serves up, but rather how well it travels around the world dishing up in a variety of accents.

So what is curry? It appears that the Portuguese and British who were in India hundreds of years ago had taken to describe all Indian spicy dishes as curry. The Portuguese had adopted the terms “caril” or “caree” from various words in south Indian languages. In Kannadan and Malayalam, the word “karil” meant spices for seasoning. In Tamil, the word kari had a similar meaning. This eventually became “curry”.[1] And as the British enjoyed their curries and began to cook them as a variation on one theme in their kitchens, the variety of spices that were grinded to make that favoured dish was reduced conveniently to curry powder, which can be easily purchased. Lizzie Collingwood found that by 1850s, British cookery books simply called for a spoonful of curry powder in their Indian recipes.

The tendency to label all spicy stews as curries has carried on in the rest of South East Asia. Today, we will casually mention of Thai Green Curry or Red Curry, or a Malay Curry or Nyonya Curry. Anyone who enjoys food or cooking will know how different they are from each other and from Indian curries.

Unlike Indian curries, Thai, Malay and Indonesian curries are generally based on a cacophony of local fresh herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, coriander leaf, fresh tumeric, lime leaves and coconut. Favoured Indian curry spices of cinnamon, cumin or coriander seeds are seldom used, and if they are, their foreign origin is amply ascribed. The Thai Mussaman Curry is one such example.

More likely, many of these dishes are indigenous to their area and possess local names. Thai Red Curry is “geng dtaeng”, while in Singapore, one of the Malay chicken curries is also known in its local name of “opor ayam”. Just as in India, curry is a convenient label for all spicy dishes, and this use has taken root locally in much of Singapore’s history. Are the British to blame, carrying this practice from India? Probably.

To start, there are few a local food historian to work on. Food writer, Sri Owen who writes a lot about Indonesian food commented, “For whatever reason, almost all Indonesian recipes, even in the highly literate societies like that those centred on the kraton of the Central Javanese sultans, have been handed down by example and word of mouth, and we have no way of knowing how they have changed or developed in the process.” This is the state that we find ourselves in when delving into the food history of this region.

But not all is lost. Historical records from Chinese and European visitors to the region do shed some light. What we know from historical records of food eaten in about the 15th century in Southeast Asia is the predominance of rice, fish, fish-paste and tumeric. Although Southeast Asia was famed for its production of numerous highly sought after spices such as cloves and nutmeg, neither accounts from Chinese nor European visitors had remarked about the spiciness of local food.According to the historian, Anthony Reid chilli pepper from South America was only introduced to the region in late sixteenth century. It was enthusiastically embraced and the Dutch could report in 1596 that it grew in parts of Java.

The popularity of chilli grew and it was soon entrenched in the diet of many. More than a hundred years later, Sir Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain James Cook on his round the world voyage, found cayenne pepper, which will probably be chilli pepper in almost all the foodstuff in Batavia. Sir Joseph Banks stayed in Batavia, Java for three months in 1770 and he wrote, “In the article of food no people can be more abstemious than they are. Boiled rice is of rich, as well as of poor, the principal part of their subsistence: this with a small proportion of fish, buffalo or fowl, and sometimes dried fish and dry shrimps, brought here from China, is their chief food. Everything, however must be highly seasoned with cayenne pepper.” These could well be a 18th century version of rending and a Malay fish sambal or curry. From here we take a leap to curry eaten in colonial Singapore, much of which would be inspired by Malay cuisine and the Indian curries. Indeed, we know that curry in whatever guise was much eaten in colonial Singapore by the Europeans. John Cameron who was in Singapore in the 1860s was much impressed with the curries served at lunch and dinner. Describing a typical dinner, he wrote, “The substantials are invariably followed by curry and rice which forms a characteristic feature of the tables of Singapore, and though Madras and Calcutta have been long famed for the quality of their curries, I nevertheless think that those of the Straits exceed any of them in excellence. There are usually two or more different kinds placed on the table, and accompanying them are all manner of sambals or native pickles and spices, which add materially to the piquancy of the dish. During the progress of the substantials and the curry and rice, the usual beverage is beer, accompanied by a glass or two of pale sherry…”

In N B Dennys' 1894 "A Descriptive Dictionary of British Malaya”, he wrote of the Curry from the Straits Settlement as characterised by its use of coconut milk, tumeric and the pods of the moringa tree (drumsticks). He went on to say there were two main types of curry, primarily “black” and “white”, and the generic name of curry in Malay was gulai.

Tucking into curry as part of a huge meal with a variety of other meats and fish usually cooked in European ways was not uncommon among the Europeans in Island Southeast Asia. It is often found on the tables in Dutch East Indies as much as the Straits Settlements and Malay States. This practice persisted through to the 20th century, when having a curry on Sundays had become a custom for the Europeans in Malaya. In P Allix’s 1953 “Menu for Malaya”, she proposed menus “more in European style, but also in the tradition of Malaya.” One of her Sunday Lunch menu is as follows,

Cream Frankfurt

Prawn Salad with Mayonnaise

Mutton Curry and Rice


Cold Roast Pork and Corned Beef

Red Cabbage Salad with Apples

Sago Pudding Gula Malacca

Cottage Cheese

Hot Buns


Some curries they had may be of Indian style, but the discerning suitably recognised the indigenous dishes when they saw it, terming it a Malay curry and such. In P C B Newington’s collection of recipes published in 1947, his curry section is well compiled with a collection of Indian curries, Malay curries which are based on local herbs using ingredients such as lemon grass and belachan, and even European curries! Quite similar to Britain where , a new strand of curry emerged as it was adapted to European cooking, with the addition of Worcester Sauce, tomato sauce or even as an adaptation to Malayan taste, Soya Bean Sauce. Mother’s Curry is a good example,

Mother’s Curry

Fry a large chopped onion in 2 tablespoons butter. Add 2 tablespoons Curry Powder. Fry several minutes and if dry add stock. Now add 1 tablespoon each of Worcester sauce, tomato sauce and vinegar. Salt to taste. Now add cubes of cooked cold meat and enough stock to cover. Simmer 2 hours or more, stirring.

As Newington is rather influenced by Malayan cooking, he suggested as an improvement to Mother’s Curry, the substitution of coconut milk for stock and to add ground chillies.

Before World War Two, very few European women cook in Malaya, leaving such duties to their local cooks and servants who are usually Chinese, Malay or Indian.The food they ate would have filtered to the local population thanks to the cooks they employed. Among them are many Hainanese Chinese, who till today are celebrated for their Asian-inspired “Western food” such as Hainanese pork chops and chicken pies.Curry could have been another dish they learnt in cooking for the Europeans, considering that curry is foreign to the Chinese palate.

Among the Chinese, the Hainanese continued to be known for their curry. My grandmother whom I interviewed, recalled fondly of buying curry from the Hainanese hawker in the 1930s and 1940s in the Clarke Quay area. Although she was born in Malaya in the 1920s, her parents were new émigrés from China, and thus cooked and ate Chinese food at home. Curry was a treat to be had from the Hainanese hawker in the neighbourhood coffee shop.

Cooking a 1940s Curry

I decided to try a chicken curry recipe from P C B Newington's Good Food one weekend. Trying to keep true to the kitchen implements in the 1940, I valiantly decided to pound the rempah and spices instead of giving them a buzz in the food processor. I wondered of the pots and stove he would have used, for that can change the flavour of the dish. In the end, I cooked it in a wok on my gas stove and the result was a flavourful dark curry. Cooking with old recipes are not for the novice. Unlike the precise instructions and enticing photos in today's cookbook, cookbook of yester-years are simple affairs with vague instructions at time. But it was fun! If you will like to give this a go, the recipe is transcribed in its entirety in the following.

Chicken Curry

1chicken-jointed, 2 pieces ginger, 6 small onions, 3 green chillies, 1 coconut (no. 1 and 2 santan), Coconut oil, 1/2 dessertspoon jintan puteh, Vinegar, 1 piece cinnamon, salt, 8 red chillies (dried), Garlic, 1 dessertspoon ketumba, 2 stalks serai, limes

Slice onions, garlic, ginger and green chillies. Pound other ingredients. Slightly heat a pan and pour in coconut oil, when smoking hot put in onions, garlic, ginger and chillies and mix well, then add ground curry stuffs. After all has been well mixed, put in chicken with vinegar (or ketchup) about 1 tablespoon and salt. Cook for a shortwhile then add No. 2 santan and cook till tender. Then stir in No. 1 santan and heat thoroughly but do not boil. Add juice of 1/2 lime.

(My notes : jintan puteh = white cumin seeds, ketumba = coriander seeds, santan no.1 = the first squeeze of coconut milk, santan no 2 = the second squeeze of coconut milk.)

With the exception for the Straits Chinese or the Peranakans who lived in the Malay archipelago for generations and are accustomed to spicy food and cooking with spices, herbs and coconut milk., I can only imagine how curry will seem alien to the new Chinese emigrants in colonial Singapore. Probably like the British and Portuguese in India centuries earlier, they would be bewildered by the array of spicy dishes and their understanding of curry will be influenced by their own cuisine as well as coloured by the mems and tuans that they worked for.

Lois T Kao who taught cookery in Singapore in the 1940s and was schooled in Chinese cooking, learning her art in Shanghai and Hong Kong gave a Chinese twist to her curries. In her book, “Cookery Book on Local Food”, she coated the beef or chicken with tapioca flour before adding to the pot with fried curry paste.Coating of meat in flour before frying is reminiscent of Chinese cookery. Her rendition is but one of the Chinese adaptations to curry.

The legacy remains. Many Singapore Chinese love spicy food and curries but are more familiar cooking with curry powder or curry paste for a dish then to assemble the spices and cooking the curry from scratch. In contrast, the Malay, Indians and Eurasians are more comfortable using spices. Today, there are a wide array of curries to be enjoyed in Singapore, from Devil’s Curry, Curry Fish Head, Chinese Chicken Curry, mutton curry, Rendang to sayur lodeh. They shared some common history, yet in each is a story to be told, reflecting the diverse culinary heritage of the community and the people that it fed.

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