NLB video series explores Singapore's past by recreating historical dishes

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SINGAPORE - Recreating a dish from a recipe 60 years ago is no easy task.

First, the units of measurement - such as kati and tahil - used before the 1970s make no sense to modern ears.

Then, some important steps were so common back then that they are omitted in the text.

A simple instruction to shape the noodles using a "sieve" can lead to hours of trial and error, with the modern sieve used to drain water completely ill-equipped for the task.

Finally, one must keep in mind the difference between old and new ingredients, which can affect the taste of the dish.

A little historical imagination - and plenty of food knowledge - is required to decide on the mix of all-purpose flour and pastry flour to match the lower-protein wheat flour of the past, creating noodles of a softer consistency similar to the ones in the 1960s.

This dynamic process of food recreation is explored in the National Library Board's (NLB) new video series, From Book To Cook, which was released on YouTube in April and May.

In five episodes, the series explores different facets of Singapore's history through different dishes, from what a ketchup sausage pasta recipe in a home economics textbook in the 1990s reveals about gender stereotypes, to how spices were adapted by British colonial families in the 1920s to make a "rendang" to be eaten with spaghetti.

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In each video, lasting about 20 minutes, librarian-host Paddy Ong, 34, meets a chef or food researcher to try to reproduce a historic dish, while talking about the social and economic issues surrounding a now extinct dish.

It is a novel take on the trove of food-related archival materials and cookbooks in NLB's collection, part of its efforts to share lesser-known stories with a new audience that might require more of a hook to appreciate the vast diversity of resources at the library's - and the public's - disposal.

Mr Christopher Tan, 50, a writer and culinary instructor who was a guest chef invited to the show, led a recreation of a milk noodle dish taken from a recipe submitted during a national competition amid the Eat More Wheat campaign in Singapore in the 1960s.

The noodles were created using wheat flour, eggs, evaporated milk and nutmeg, during an ultimately unsuccessful drive to get more Singaporeans to shift their staple diets from rice to wheat, with floods, droughts and other factors creating a shortage of rice during the hardship of the post-war years.

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"Food doesn't occur in a vacuum, and is always influenced by what was going on in the world," he said.

"You can't really look at local or regional food without their historical context.

"We want to set the dishes in context: how they came about, who cooked them, what kind of world led to their creation. It makes the dish come alive, beyond the facts in books, and it is very gratifying."

Mr Ong said the videos should help NLB reach out to new audiences.

"I had never made noodles before and almost got my hands scalded. We are just enjoying telling a Singapore recipe and the comments have been positive.

"After the home economics episode, some people said they appreciated the conversation about gender stereotyping. After another episode, I went home and made a nasi lemak dish again because it was so delicious," he said.

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The lead chef for the episode on home economics, centred on a recipe for ketchup sausage pasta, was food writer and researcher Sheere Ng, who talked about how home economics classes were made compulsory in the 1980s for all women after birth rates starting declining and marriage became less of a priority for highly educated women.

The fear of a national crisis of gender roles was so great that child rearing techniques were incorporated into the syllabus to be taught to girls who were aged just 13 or 14, sparking a pushback from groups who thought this put the responsibility of homemaking completely on women and left men unable to fulfil their domestic duties.

She said family arrangements today have become more balanced, but have yet to fundamentally change the division of household labour.

"So many families nowadays hire foreign domestic helpers. But did we break gender norms in the household? I don't think so. Because what we actually did was to simply pass on homemaking and caretaking duties to other women - still women - of lesser means," she said.

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Mr Tan said food remains an important avenue to explore when it comes to Singapore's heritage.

"Food carries a lot of power. Three times a day, we have a chance to perform an act that recalls memories, that bonds people together, that expresses someone's artistic impulses," he said.

"The act of cooking and the act of sitting down and eating, they carry so much potential within them to create other things."

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