Not many people know this, but Singapore was once an important centre of the global pineapple canning industry. Pineapples first originated from South America until Christopher Columbus brought them across the Atlantic to Europe by 1493. 100 years later, the well-travelled Portuguese then introduced this sweet and sour juicy fruit to Asia, specifically in Malaya. During the rubber boom of the early 1900s, pineapples were often grown alongside the slower-maturing rubber trees, becoming a cash crop for plantation owners in Singapore.
In fact, Yishun town, in the northern part of the island used to be a huge rubber and pineapple plantation owned by Lim Nee Soon, better known as the ‘Pineapple King’. The surplus pineapples were canned and exported all over the world, and this became one of Singapore’s earliest manufacturing industries, providing many jobs for the people on the island.
With Singapore becoming melting pot for colonials and early immigrants, food cultures also started to intertwine and the pineapple tart was born. These bite-sized snacks are an amalgamation of ethnic influences in Singapore: a distinctly European buttery biscuit base topped with a dollop of Nyonya-style pineapple jam scented with spices like star anise, cloves and cinnamon, native to this part of the world.
In Hokkien and Cantonese, pineapple is called ‘ong lai’, which literally means ‘fortune come’. The naturally golden pineapple fruit was seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, used in Chinese rituals like rolling it into a new house to welcome riches into the home. Pineapple tarts also became ubiquitous during the Lunar New Year as it gained popularity as an auspicious gift for family and friends.
The pastry consists of a large proportion of butter and egg yolk, besides using corn starch, giving it a rich, buttery, tender and melt-in-the-mouth texture. The pineapple jam is usually made by slowly reducing and caramelizing grated fresh pineapple that has been mixed with sugar and spices – usually cinnamon, star anise and cloves.
Typical shapes include a flat, open tart topped with pineapple jam under a lattice of pastry, rolls filled with jam that are open at the ends, and jam-filled spheres or elongated shape.
Traditional Pineapple Tarts, with the dollop of pineapple jam atop a crumbly biscuit base, and its Golden Pineapple balls bring back memories of being a kid in the family spending time with the extended family. A comfort food for me and Singaporeans.
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