A continuation of my series on the origins of food.
It’s not ice cream in Singapore that helps locals get through the sweltering sun, it’s refreshing Ice Kachang, a shaved ice mountain in countless red-green-yellow hues and unlike anything you’ve eaten before. It’s a bit of a leap of faith to try it for the moment, mainly because Ice Kachang is nothing like your average dessert. Next the toppings are soft-cooked red beans, creamed maize, attap chee (palm seeds), cendol (‘worms’ of green rice-flour), and grass jelly, a list so surprising in a dessert that the most natural reaction is skepticism.
Then there are the textures: shaved ice sting, palm seed chewiness, bean powdery-creaminess, and cendol springy-bite. It’s not until you sample the mosaic of flavors of Ice Kachang that you begin to know why this dessert catches the imagination of everyone who tastes it.
Ice Kachang, widely understood to be of Malaysian origin, is not especially unique in its composition. Hawaiian Shave-Ice, Patbingsoo of Korea or Halo-Halo of the Philippines also shaved ice with all kinds of toppings and syrups. But that’s because they all descended from Kakigori, the Japanese word for sweetened shaved ice, which indicates that the “Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets” spread to most of Southeast Asia through Japanese migration trends. Singapore’s rendition of shaved ice, however is very much its own.
It had modest beginnings, however. Some figured it had started out as an ice ball. The ice ball, sold in the 1950s and 1960s at only 5-10 cents, was a popular frozen treat for children in the past. It was shaped (by hand) into the form of a ball using shaved ice, and then drizzled with evaporated milk and various syrups in various colors. In the middle of the ball, some vendors added jellies or red beans as an extra treat. Upon request, the seller could also cut the ball in half so it could be shared with a friend.
The height of the popularity of the dessert was in the 1950s and 1960s, where it could be found in numerous pushcarts across Singapore. It has vanished from the lives of Singaporeans somewhere along the way. There are some reasons we can think about why the ice ball died out. Improvements in quality of food hygiene, combined with the emergence of an improved version of the ice ball (ice kacang), have made the ice ball even less enticing to people.
During the 1950s, itinerant hawkers were a real concern for the government of the day. Given the unhygienic conditions of hawkering, the stalls not only caused traffic congestion, but also posed a health threat. As well as rodent infestations, Hawkering was connected to typhoid and malaria outbreaks.
Itinerant hawkers had to be licensed and registered as part of a registration exercise in the 1960s to cope with this problem. Registered hawkers have had to comply with certain basic requirements of public health, such as preventing food contamination. From the 1970s onwards, hawkers were gradually moved to markets and hawker centers, where they had access to adequate sanitation, equipment and water supply. The idea of the ice ball — cooked and eaten with bare hands, served without a plastic sheet — undoubtedly became slightly more unattractive as food preparation standards improved.
The advent of a better version is simply another possible explanation for the death of the frozen dessert ball. Ice kacang is much like an ice ball, but compared to an ice ball, it has more ingredients. Atap seeds, various jellies, maize, red beans, and even ice cream are part of the variety of ingredients. It is often served and eaten with a spoon in a bowl. The ice ball and ice kacang actually coexisted for a period of time until the ice ball lost out to its fancier dessert equivalent since there are reports of the ice kacang in local newspapers from as early as the 1970s.
The old school traditional version is simply topped with dark brown, syrupy gula melaka (palm sugar) lashings of soft-cooked red adzuki beans, more smokey than saccharine sweet, and many sugar evaporated milk swirls. Often to take the sweetness up a notch, there’s red rose syrup or green syrup, made from Asian-Vanilla Pandan, to add the brightness of the herb. But the street hawkers of Singapore are an inventive bunch, and Ice Kachang toppings have only grown more varied and wonderful over the years, from fresh fruits such as Durian and mango, to unexpected additions such as peanuts and sago pearls. Choosing your own adventure is all the better. Yum and refreshing.
Check out my related post: How did Zagat come about?