Remembrance of curry puffs past
Can we eat our way back to our childhoods? There’s a reason why Marcel Proust’s seven-volume memoir-novel kicks off its epic journey down memory lane with the narrator eating a madeleine, a French cake, dipped in lime-infused tea. For many of us, food is our most sensuous route to recover lost time. The taste of a beloved childhood dish can open the floodgates of memory, as it does for Proust. Proust calls this trigger ‘mémoire involontaire.’ It’s a phrase that implies not just unwilled memory, but how the past can ambush us through our senses, transporting us, physically, to a past we thought we’d long forgotten.
I am in Singapore with my parents, and my mother is seeking her own madeleine moment. She is on a quest to recover the foods she loved growing up here as a child in the 1940s and the 1950s, before she left for England in 1961. Char Kway Teow, stir-fried flat rice noodles. Hokkien Mee, thin egg or rice fried noodles. Both come with different combinations of seafood, vegetables, egg and chicken; my mother and her family omitted other meats. Popiah, a Fukkienese spring roll wrapped in a very thin pancake, with a stuffing mixture again of mainly vegetables. Nasi Lemak, coconut rice, with accompaniments of Ikan Bilis, tiny fried fish, peanuts, Sambal, a very spicy chilli sauce, egg, vegetables. Nasi Goreng, Nonya Malay Chinese fried rice. Pisang Goreng -- Mas, or golden, small bananas, lightly fried in batter. As our days become fewer, my mother becomes more frenzied in her search.
No holy grail is more significant, however, than the curry puff, Singapore’s signature food. Indeed, munching on a curry puff for lunch, either from a kopitiam, an old-style coffee shop, or from Old Chang Kee, or from C K Tang’s, had been one of the advertisements for this trip my mother had held out to me, as if I needed an incentive. I’m not at all unfamiliar with the pastry. In London, my mother sometimes manages to obtain curry puffs, with -- for me -- just the right combination of fillings and melt-in-your-mouth pastry, from a Malaysian stallholder whom she’s befriended in the local market. She brings a huge bagful home for our lunches, with a look that says she’s pulled a rabbit from the hat. Nevertheless, she couldn’t wait to get here, in order to eat what she said would be The Real Curry Puff.
In terms of our visit, however, eating curry puffs, along with the other foods of her childhood, has been a saga of repeated disappointments. The curry puffs are not spicy enough. Or they have too much pastry. Or the wrong kind of pastry. Too much potato. They are too big, or ugly. The ideal curry puff should contain chicken, my mother thinks. Or maybe eggs. She is unsure.
Old Chang Kee, which began in the 1950s as a stall outside the Rex Cinema serving the handheld snack to hungry filmgoers, used to make a version with minced chicken. They still make one with sardines, but again the pastry is not quite right. In others, using sweet potato instead of potato could be a nice touch, but the sweetness overpowers the curry flavour. Then there is the curry flavour itself. Some puffs taste more of garam masala, with too strong a clove and cinnamon composition, than curry.
In the pursuit, I’m learning how apt it is that my mother has presented the curry puff as Singapore’s signature food. The pastry would seem to be a descendant of the Portuguese empanada. The Portuguese were the first Western explorers in this part of the world, in the quest for spices. When the British established Singapore as their entrepôt, they imagined it as the centre of the spice trade, as was reaffirmed for me as I wandered through the plants of Singapore’s recently opened spice garden. The pastry container tallies the curry puff also with the heavy-as-a-bomb bland food you find in Britain, the pasty, staple of Cornish fisherman.
The British came to Singapore after colonising India, where they ‘discovered’ for themselves the multitude of dishes served in spicy sauces and which they homogenised by grouping together under the term curry. They might have thought the obvious thing to do was to wrap the curried dishes into a single, portable food. But of course India already had samosas, which give us another version of the curry puff. The curry puff, like Singapore itself – like my mother’s family -- is likely to be a product of multiple cultures and multiple colonialisms.
My grandfather Jacob, on the left, with other members of the Elias family, spice traders for generations
The spicy curry puff is an ideal ‘madeleine’ for my mother, as her father, and his father, and his father and generations before, were spice traders. Iraqi Jews, they left Baghdad after the building of the Suez Canal in the 1860s, moving from the Ottoman Empire of which Iraq was then a part, to British Imperial India. One generation was born in India, and the family relocated to Singapore, following trade shifts and expansions. The Elias Brothers, my mother’s grandfather and his brothers, traded spices, among other Asian goods, on Market Street, near Raffles Place. While the spice trade was very much in decline by my own grandfather Jacob’s day, my mother remembers that her father was still trading in spices. He sometimes brought them home in sacks, along with fresh almonds, which her mother would fry in a wok.
My grandmother ground the spices either with a pestle and mortar, or with a heavy rolling pin on a flat stone, or, if there was a large quantity, took them to the local Indian spice grinder. Esther Elias used to make her own curry puffs. These were, of course, the most delectable to my mother. (Did she use only potato and vegetables? My mother again can’t quite remember.) Esther, born Koh-wei, was a Hokkien immigrant from China, and yet here she was making curry puffs. You would have thought she had no prior knowledge of curry puffs. But then it turns out that Fujian province, where she came from in China, created Popiah, and that ‘pop’ in Fujian dialect means puff or bubble or blister.
Really, then, can we ever say who invented the curry puff? The best foods in our family, like the family itself, were those that picked up different ingredients and flavours, as we travelled across Asia. Perhaps this is why curry puffs are not as good as they were in the past. Not only can we never eat our way back to childhood – sorry, Marcel. Not only has the curry puff become a victim of its globalised success, manufactured more than handmade, with Old Chang Kee everywhere now, even in London. Retracing the roots of the curry puff, as of the family, is a saga of receding origins. We can never find our way back to the very beginning of that slowly migrated, spice-infused, past.
PS. After reading this post, my friend Leslie Hakim-Dowek rightly reminded me of the Sambousek beloved of Mizrahi Jews -- Jews from the Middle East, like my family. The possible influences for Singapore's curry puff are as multiple as the ways of preparing it.