Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Where Would We Be…Without Ellice Handy?

The dining industry, as we know it, has changed beyond all recognition. Today, cooking is an art form and cultural phenomena that has spawned “culinary personalities” and “domestic goddesses” and even sex symbols.

TV channels now devote themselves entirely to food; and food blogs garner followings of millions. People travel the world to eat at famous restaurants and to have their pictures taken with “superstar” chefs. Cooking schools teach to sellout classes and we buy cookbooks just so we can ogle at lavish photographs of food.

In Singapore, chefs like Emmanuel Stroobant, Sam Leong, and Chef Wan are household names on TV and writers of popular cookbooks. Before them, there was Violet Oon, Terry Tan, and Wendy Hutton; and even earlier, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, Mrs Leong Yee Soo, Tham Yui Kai, and Ellice Handy. Ellice who?
Poster girl in the 80s

Ellice Handy is a name all but forgotten today. She was one of the first – if not the first – person in Singapore to write a cookbook under her own name. And, her little book stood as the bible for home cooking in Singapore long before the likes of Mrs Lee and Mrs Leong came along.

There’s not much to be found about her life on the Internet; she was, apparently, the first Asian principal of Methodist Girls’ School in the period after the Second World War. In 1952, to raise funds for school building, she wrote and published the cookbook, My Favourite Recipes by Ellice Handy. (Ellice Handy’s book predated Julia Child’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which appeared in 1961, by nine years!)

My Favourite Recipes went into several editions; but sadly, it has been out of print for many years now. As far as I could discover, that was the only book Ellice Handy ever wrote. When I was publisher, I tried to resurrect this historic cookbook, hoping it would find an appreciative audience among the younger generation. We tried to contact her family to seek permission to republish, but were not able to trace any surviving relatives.
1970 Edition of the book

Ellice Handy also contributed recipes to local magazines and appeared in product endorsements in printed advertisements. Seemed she was the Nigella Lawson of her time!

Flipping through the book, with its jotter-like paper and archaic print, you feel as though you’re looking at recipes that have appeared in print for the very first time – and you probably are! “Mee Siam”, “Fish Ball Soup”, “Fried Curry Puffs”…they’re all here, like old familiar friends. Many of the dishes are still with us, while some have vanished; but one gets a sense of the first stirrings of a culinary identity that is, truly, Singaporean.

As she herself was not a trained chef, Ellice Handy’s recipes were simple and straightforward enough to be replicated without much difficulty at home. And, in the unique style of Singaporean society (or government policy? – one wonders), the book features a multi-ethnic roster of Indian, Malay, Chinese, and Eurasian, as well as western, recipes.


So, on our 46th National Day, I’d like to render a modest tribute to a special lady and her pioneering book, and hope her culinary contribution to posterity would become better known. Here’s the coconut candy I first came to know about from her book. I adored it as a child, especially its “lemak” (Malay for “rich”) caramel taste and texture of grated coconut.
 Coconut Candy

Coconut                      3 cups, grated
Sugar                          2½ cups
Evaporated milk         ¾ cup
Butter                         1 tsp
Salt                             a pinch
Vanilla paste              1 tsp (optional)
Pandan leaves            2 leaves (optional)

Method:
  1. Mix all the ingredients and cook under low heat until the sugar has dissolved (if you have added pandan leaves, remove them once the sugar has melted). Stir constantly to prevent from burning, and increase the heat once the sugar has melted.
  2. Cook the mixture until it attains a lumpy consistency that doesn’t cling to the side of the pan.
  3. Once the mixture begins to caramelize (turn brownish), add vanilla (the original recipe uses vanilla, but if you want a more Asian flavor, you can use pandan leaves instead of vanilla) and stir thoroughly. Do not over-cook or the mixture will harden due to caramelization of sugar. If that happens, just add a bit of evaporated milk to soften the texture again.
  4. Pour the candy into a pan that has been lightly greased with butter. Without pressing the candy, use a wooden spoon to spread it out evenly on the pan, leaving a roughly level surface.
  5. When it has cooled slightly, cut into pieces with a knife but do not separate the pieces.
  6. Once hardened, simply break the candy into pieces with your hand.

28 comments:

  1. I totally agree with you. I am one of those lucky ones who have a copy of her cookbook - passed to me by my mum. Although old and browned, I still find many of the recipes easy to follow, yummy and most of all - heartwarming.

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  2. Hi, I am soi glad I looked her up and the book that I missed so very much, I had the 1970 edition of her book , the one in red, but have lost it in Malaysia when my sisters house caught fire. I had left all my belongings at her house before leaving for Canada. I so long for that book and will try to find it. I love all her recipes and especially the recipe for the different curry powders. Actually, all her receipes, and I miss them so much.

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  3. @Beverley, Belin: It's a pity that her book is out of print now, she is almost unknown to the current generation. It's still a joy to go on a culinary tour of Singapore through her recipes.

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  4. I enjoyed your write-up of Ellice Handy very much. I too have been a fan of her cookery book for many years.

    I thought you might be interested to know that she was my grandmother's adopted mother... I don't know what that means in terms of being able to get permissions to republish the book, but it would be interesting to look into it.

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  5. @ Rachael, are you intouch with any of their family members, I know they are in Adelaide, from what I read on her thru internet. It would be a good memeory for her. Also if there is a way we could get a lot of people asking for it and signing request. Maybe that will work.

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    1. oops sorry , racheal, this is Belin. somehow i forgot my account and logged into google

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  6. Hi Belin, my family is still in contact with her niece's family in Adelaide. I will get in touch with her and see what she thinks. Ellice Handy is on my mother's side of the family, but my paternal grandmother and her generation all learned how to cook from "My Favourite Recipes", so that could be an idea... perhaps something I can enquire about when I'm back in Singapore this summer.

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    1. Hi Rachael,

      I am trying to acquire a copy of this book but can't seem to find one anywhere! My grandmother had one, which was passed on to my mum, but I'd really like a copy of my own as we live on different continents. I had the priviledge of tasting the many dishes as a child and would like my child to have the same wonderful experience. Any idea where I could get one? Your help is much appreciated.

      Kind regards.

      Mrs. Christine Hall

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    2. Hi Christine, I am told that the publisher is reissuing the book in the last quarter of 2012. Please keep a lookout for it at the bookstores or ebay.

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  7. I found out about this book just recently!
    It's published by Landmark Books. They don't seem to have a website though!
    It's available at Books Actually. http://booksactually.bigcartel.com/product/my-favourite-recipes-by-ellice-handy

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  8. Great work and thanks David for writing about Ellice Handy! Incidentally I have a compilation of her recipes under this cookbook "Female Cookbook 1976 featuring Ellice Handy Recipes". I have my mother in-law who passed me some "antique cookbooks" to thank for and am willing to share the book with others. ;)

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    1. It's very kind and generous of you, Irene. I would love to have a look at these books soon.

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  9. My mum had this book and swore by it as a foreign lady married to a Malaysian trying to get to grips with a new cuisine in the early 70's!

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  10. Her book was my aunts "bible" and my cousin still has it - a real early edition from the 50s or early 60s where the recipies says 10 cents tau gay and 20 cents long beans if I recall correctly. :-)

    The new addition at Books Actually costs $49. They still have the weights and measures in katis and lbs. Lovely.

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  11. Sitting in my office in Vancouver - I thought of Ellice Handy and her Coconut Candy recipe (which is the best recipe by the way) and decided to google her name. I still have the 1950 something ediion - it is falling apart - but I still use her recipes - her cakes are the best - just like old days. I wish I could buy a new edition of her book for my daughter and son - as they love the real authentic singaporen food - which is slowly fading away.
    Pls let me know where I can buy it.

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    1. This book has been recently republished by Landmark Publishing. Perhaps you could get it on online now. Enjoy!

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  12. Republished in KL and Singapore, available @ Kinukuniya KLCC.

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  13. Ms Ellice's husband was a Dr whose Dispensary-cum-hospital was at Hill Street, Singapore.It was situated at the foot of Fort Canning Hill.They have had an only daughter, now in Australia.Dr Henry gave my dad his vintage beach which he has been lying upon, up till today.My dad is 82 this year.

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  14. Ooops, I mean to say...wooden vintage bench

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  15. I still have the red book and am looking after it preciously. How do we get the new publication. Would love to get it for my daughter in UK. My e mail address is pamelasundram@yahoo.com

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    1. Hello Lonely mum, im looking for a copy of the Red book, as i lost mine..is it possible to make me a copy..i pay pay for it..my email address is mrsjanettan@gmail.com, thank you so much..love her receipies..

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    2. Hi Ellice Handy's recipes have been republished and is available in Singapore and online on Book Depository - http://www.bookdepository.com/My-Favourite-Recipes-Ellice-Handy/9789814189392?ref=grid-view and http://www.bookdepository.com/Our-Favourite-Recipes-Ellice-Handy/9789814189460?ref=grid-view

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  16. My Favourite Recipes is available online at http://www.kinokuniya.com/sg/index.php/fbs003?common_param=9789814189392

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  17. I found a 1970 printing of the book whilst going through some of my mum's old stuff.

    The book also had so many annotations and recipes of her own.

    It was like a time capsule... I remembered all the food that she used to cook when I was a kid. I'm way past 40 now.

    I'm going to try cooking some of the dishes soon.

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  18. Hello Bilin and Everyone
    I am doing research on Singapore Eurasian Women over the next 18 months and would be grateful if you could tell me whether Ellice Zuberbuhler Handy considered herself Eurasian or Anglo-Indian?
    Thank you for your help
    Denyse Tessensohn
    puterim@gmail.com

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  19. I am very excited to have found this thread though am posting late. I have a "Second Edition 1960" from when I was in the Peace Corps! It's a treasure but is falling apart and I think I'll spring for a newer one. I noticed that there's also a "Our Favourite Recipes". Anyone know how that differs from "My Favourite Recipes?

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