Thinking Aloud

This festive season, swop logcake for chiku?

A global butter shortage is a good reason to restore South-east Asian eating traditions, like having fruit for dessert.

"Dessert, more likely than not, would be fruit. The multi-coloured Nonya kueh would more often than not be offered at teatime, together with savoury snacks such as kway pie tee or curry puffs."

That paragraph is from the introduction to Sylvia Tan's cookbook, Modern Nonya. For me, it stirs memories of my childhood when teatime was supervised by my Teochew Peranakan paternal grandmother who lived with us and did indeed serve up savoury delights like kway pie tee, especially when her sisters came over for a game of mahjong. (Kway pie tee are small crispy pastry cups stuffed with a moist filling of cooked turnip and bamboo shoots).

When I was growing up, we rarely ate sweets, except during Chinese New Year when my grandmother, a marvellous cook, would bake kueh belanda (Nonya love letters) and kueh bolu (mini sponge cakes) over charcoal. During the rest of the year, we ate fruit at the end of meals and occasionally snacked on Nonya kueh bought from a neighbourhood stall.

I resurrect these memories in the light of the current global butter shortage, which could lead to higher prices for certain baked goods this festive season. Mr Eric Ng of bakery chain Swee Heng told The Sunday Times last week that the price of butter has increased from $5 to $5.50 per kg last year to about $8.50 to $9 per kg now. Whether bakeries and patisseries will be able to continue absorbing the higher costs remains unclear.

What is clear is that many Singaporeans have developed a regular habit of eating Western-style baked goods, with butter-laden cupcakes and cream cakes now favourite desserts. While I love our city's newfound cafe culture, I also think we should seize this golden opportunity of a butter shortfall to restore some habits of old, for the sake of both health and heritage.

First, health.


Singapore has launched a war on diabetes and the Prime Minister himself dwelt at length on the urgent need to combat the rise of this chronic disease among the local population. Diet changes are key to fighting diabetes, with Mr Lee Hsien Loong urging people to cut their intake of sugar. "Wholemeal bread instead of white bread. Teh-o kosong instead of teh. But if the dessert is chendol, it can't be helped. I will just take a little bit," he said at the National Day Rally in August.

Since cakes tend to be loaded with sugar, it is probably wise to eat them in small amounts. Fruits are a healthier option by far; and Singapore's Health Promotion Board encourages people to eat two servings of fruits daily. That advice makes sense given Singapore's geographic location at the heart of South-east Asia, a fruit lover's utopia, with the island Borneo a centre of tropical fruit diversity.

"Fruit is used in salads and pickles but is most often consumed as snacks or desserts," writes Ms Penny Van Esterik in her book Food Culture in South-east Asia.

"Bananas, native to the region, come in many varieties, and are eaten as snacks and used unripe and ripe in a variety of desserts. Some varieties are believed to have medicinal properties, particularly the banana flower, which is often used in soups. Citrus fruits include the grapefruit-like pomelos, oranges, lemons, kumquats, and a variety of wild and cultivated limes. Jackfruit is served fresh and in iced desserts; the roots have been used to cure diarrhoea. Mangoes are used in salads and pickles when green and unripe, and when ripe, they are used in a variety of desserts.

"The Columbian Exchange brought fruits such as papaya and pineapple to South-east Asia. Papaya is now one of the most popular fruits in the region; it is eaten unripe in salads and in sour soups, and ripe as a fruit snack, often with lime juice. Pineapple is one fruit that is often used in savoury dishes including soups."

To that list, I would like to add the chiku, a fruit tree believed to be native to Mexico but today found across the tropics. Its brown fruit has a wonderful flavour like that of caramelised sugar, which just goes to show that a switch from cake to fruit need involve no sacrifice in flavour.

Second reason, heritage.

It is a tragedy that we the people of South-east Asia are losing our culinary traditions. The cuisines of this region are some of the world's most exciting, with their fusion of flavours from East and West, use of spices and appreciation for fresh and contrasting flavours.

These culinary traditions are also a source of collective memory for the people of this region, a way for us to connect across national boundaries - sometimes like family over a shared love for a dish, sometimes like rivals fighting over the origins of a dish.

Such connections nurture people-to-people ties and can help build a sense of community within the regional grouping Asean, which marks its 50th year this year and whose rotating chairmanship Singapore assumes from January.

I will never forget visiting a cooking school in Hanoi more than 10 years ago, the Vietnamese equivalent of Singapore's Shatec, and my delight at seeing on the menu a dish that my grandmother used to make, of thin slices of pork first dried in the sun, then marinated in dark soya sauce and sugar and rolled around small pieces of liver and roasted in an oven. Unfortunately the Vietnamese students at the school were unable to fill me in on the origins of this dish.

My mother and I have tried and failed to replicate my grandmother's version of it, so I am now resigned to never tasting it again since no restaurant here seems to serve it. It is not health food since the dish combines red meat and sugar but Grandma always made it in small amounts, just two small rolls per person.

But South-east Asian food is for the most part healthy as the regional cuisines tend to be based on rice, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit. The problem is that the old ways of eating and preparing food are dying out.

Ms Rosemary Brissenden, an Australian academic who is considered a world authority on the subject, wrote her book South East Asian Food in 1969. In 1993, she returned to the region to update it for a second edition. In the book's introduction, she writes: "Some of the changes in eating and cooking habits I observed in countries I had known of old - particularly in the cities-both surprised and alarmed me. Of course there were short cuts, modern embellishments and techniques; that is not surprising in countries that have become as integrated in the global economy as these tiger economies now are. Nor is it unwelcome. But there were disappointments too: loss of domestic heritage, loss of time to resuscitate it, loss of skill and of culinary control."

Her painstakingly researched book covers the cuisines of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. "Each country has its own culture and cuisine, of course, though political boundaries sometimes intersect particular cultural and ecological ones... But there is an overall regional character recognisable in South-east Asian food... Historians write of a widespread Indianisation of South-east Asia in early times. This also introduced many shared herbs and food plants such as tamarind, garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric and pepper from or via India."

There was also the great sea trade that once extended from China to India, the Arab world and subsequently to Europe. "It was this trade that brought spices such as coriander and cumin, fennel, cinnamon and cardamom into the region and spread localised spices like cloves and nutmeg around more broadly. The trade introduced strong culinary influences from Muslim India, the Arab world, China and to a lesser extent Europe. The wok and the Chinese practice of frying came to South-east Asia in this way, as did Arab kebabs and spicy Muslim meat dishes. The Portuguese brought the chilli, a native of South America," she writes.

As heirs to such a fabulous culinary heritage, we would be fools to squander it. We should instead work to recover our shared culinary traditions, and there is no time like this present butter shortage to get started.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'This festive season, swop logcake for chiku?'. Print Edition | Subscribe