Foodie Confidential

Civil Society activist Constance Singam's new book keeps local food culture alive

Mrs Constance Singam delves into local food and its roots in her latest book, Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to pack a bottle of chilli sauce in one's luggage when going abroad, says author Constance Singam, 80.

She says: "You would take the chilli sauce because the food in other countries would be so bland. Sometimes, that's all you would want."

Knowing that this practice would strike a chord with Singaporeans even today, she titled her latest book, Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce.

Of course, her chilli sauce recipe, together with other family recipes such as Kerala fish curry, chicken vindaloo, flourless orange almond cake and mango mousse, are in the 184-page volume published by Epigram Books.

It is more than just a recipe book though. Through her food memories, she takes readers on a culinary journey to discover the rich local food culture and its roots.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • A good nasi lemak. I can't find a good one because the rice is never lemak enough. I'll have it with prawn sambal and finish off with a chendol.

Her mother's death - more than 20 years ago - sparked the idea for her book, which took her two years to finish.

Mrs Singam, whose parents were from Kerala, India, says: "We didn't keep recipes to pass on to the next generation. I feared the loss of cultural heritage in terms of food."

Her late husband, a former journalist, died in 1978. They have no children.

A large part of her interview with The Sunday Times was focused on the evolution of Singapore's food culture.

The Singaporean civil society activist and former president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), says: "Now, people don't cook, but go out and eat hawker food, have helpers to cook meals or use ready-made pre-mixes. This way, you lose your history and origins of the recipes and ingredients. I believe that if you don't cook something enough, you could forget."

The avid cook admits that she has used pre-mixes before, but they were not to her liking as she "did not know what ingredients are inside".

The eldest of eight siblings, Mrs Singam, in 2004, ran the now-defunct Spice N Wine Cafe in Yio Chu Kang, which was owned by her brother.

On the experience, she says: "It was losing money and closed after five years. It takes time to build up a food-and-beverage brand, and could be very exhausting. Service staff was also very hard to find."

Since you have run a cafe, what do you think of the hipster cafe trend?

I think such trends die out quickly. I do go to cafes, but the food has to be good. Old School Delights in Upper Thomson Road, for example, serves very good chendol.

Even though it is in the Tiong Bahru enclave, I wouldn't consider Tiong Bahru Bakery to be hipster because it does classic French bakes.

I've always wanted to write about cafes and bookshops, but nothing stays. In 20 years, is the cafe still there? Now, in a few years, it's gone.

Are there any brands that you feel have stood the test of time?

Yes, the Polar Puffs & Cakes chain, which used to be Polar Cafe in High Street. It was the place to go to back then. The curry puff still tastes the same. Another brand is the Han's chain of restaurants.

Does your family have any food traditions?

We have weekly Sunday lunches. I love the idea of having people gather around the table to eat. I don't like buffet-style dining. It's about food, people and conversation.

I continue this with family and friends. Last Sunday, I made dry fish sambal, Western-style roast pork, tomato salad, fried cabbage and chicken curry.

Are there any eateries that hold special memories for you?

My husband and I would go on dates at the now-defunct Swee Kee Chicken Rice in Middle Road. Can you imagine it being a romantic place?

Where do you like to dine at now?

Loy Kee Chicken Rice in Balestier Road. I like the decoration as it suggests the history of the place. For char kway teow and popiah, I go to Shunfu Mart Food Centre. The char kway teow at Tangs Market foodcourt is also good. I go to 724 Ang Mo Kio Market & Food Centre for fried carrot cake. For satay, I head to Lau Pa Sat's satay street.

I have been going to Dino Cake House & Cafe in Upper Thomson for 18 years and the food is still consistent. My favourite is the mee siam. For Peranakan food, I go to Glory Catering in Katong.

What satisfies your sweet tooth?

I love anything with the combination of coconut, gula melaka and rice flour. Sabar Menanti does a good chendol, but since it moved to Shenton Way from Kandahar Street, I don't go anymore.

When did you start cooking?

At age 24, when I got married. I never cooked before that because my mother believed that when you have to learn, you will. Now at home, I cook with whatever is in my fridge. It can be Chinese beehoon soup, roast or thosai.

You have a wide collection of cookbooks. What would you recommend?

Former Methodist Girls' School principal Ellice Handy's My Favourite Recipes is one that I would still refer to. I collect a lot of books, which I like to read for ideas, but I don't follow the recipes.

If you could invite someone to a meal with you, who would you pick?

United States' President-elect Donald Trump. I would show him what the rest of the world is like and teach him a lesson on multiculturalism. I would serve him curry. For a dinner party, I would invite American politician Hillary Clinton as she's very open and respectful of other cultures. Plus, she is a feminist.

•Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce ($35.90) is sold at shop.epigrambooks.sg

•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Keep food culture alive'. Print Edition | Subscribe