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Hawkers, Chefs, and Tiffin Curries
In 1991, Mary Jane and I traveled to Singapore to experience the foods of the Spice Islands and to collect curry recipes. The night we arrived, friends immediately drove us the Newton Food Centre for dinner. Newton is one of the famous hawker centres--so named because in the past the cooks would "hawk" their food to customers. The centre consisted of perhaps fifty open-air stalls and a hundred tables and was jam-packed with hungry diners.
Intense and exotic aromas wafted from the food stalls which sported an intriquing array of signs, such as "Juriah Nasi Padang" and "Rojak Tow Kua Pow Cuttlefish." The hawkers specialized in a bewildering selection of quick and inexpensive foods from many cuisines. Among the delicacies we tasted were Chinese thousand-year-old eggs, the famous Singapore chile crab, Indonesian satays, Indian curried dishes, and a barbecued Malayan stingray.
| ||Later, at the famous Raffles Hotel (left), we learned about the evolution of another curry style in Singapore and parts of Malaysia. The "tiffin curry lunches," still served at Raffles and other hotels, actually originated in India, where men went to work carrying a tiffin carrier, a stacked series of containers (enamel or stainless steel) held together by a metal frame. The concept was brought to Singapore by the British, because they were loathe to dine in local establishments for fear of tropical diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. |
One of the main ingredients of a tiffin lunch was a tiffin curry, which went easy on the chiles and spices so as not to offend British tastes. Tiffin curries were served by the best hotels, such as Raffles, and a famous tiffin room was Emerson's Tiffin, Billiards, and Reading Room, which opened in 1866 near Cavenagh Bridge. Tiffin curries became popular partly because the moderately spicy curries were believed to aid in curing hangovers, a typical affliction of the British, who dearly loved to carouse. Early tiffins usually featured curried eggs, chicken, prawns, or eggplants accompanied by rice, sambals, and a mango chutney. A typical later tiffin curry lunch, as served by the Europe Hotel in 1932, consisted of curried fish and rice accompanied by iced consomme, veal, ham, fruits, and a watercress salad. My recipe for Curry Puffs, below, is a classic tiffin curry lunch item. Interestingly enough, in Noel Coward's play, "Pretty Polly Barlow," the death of Mrs. Innes Hook was blamed on her having "Stuffed herself with curry at the Raffles...three gin slings before lunch and an enormous plate of prawn curry at lunch." My version of prawn curry is below as well.
The Malaysians have a saying, "Good food and happiness go hand in hand." I hope our fellow cooks will find happiness with the Spice Islands curries that follow. Just don't stuff yourself!