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 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)
- 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.
- Cook the mixture until it attains a lumpy consistency that doesn’t cling to the side of the pan.
- 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.
- 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.
- When it has cooled slightly, cut into pieces with a knife but do not separate the pieces.
- Once hardened, simply break the candy into pieces with your hand.