Tastes of Yesteryear (TOYY) is an initiative by a group of students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to track the evolution of food in Singapore and to encourage the preservation of Singapore’s food heritage. Visit their site here and “like” them on Facebook here. The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) is a an official supporter of TOYY, and we had a chat with the TOYY team to find out the inspiration behind the project, and everything that transpired!
iremembersg: Hi! Tell us more about the Tastes of Yesteryear project.
TOYY: Tastes of Yesteryear is a food heritage conservation campaign initiated by four students from NTU. The team realised that Singapore has a really rich food heritage, and our food tells many stories about how life was like in the past, and it is important for us to remember these experiences.
So the team went around the island, interviewing people in the food industry with rich knowledge about the dishes they were serving. This included hawkers, and food manufacturers with a long history stemming from days of being street hawkers. They shared with us stories about how they first started selling their dishes, and how food in Singapore has changed, from the basic ingredients, to the way it is presented today.
We collated this knowledge, and put them together to present in a series of roadshows in NUS, NTU, and SMU. We also put up this information online on our website, as well as our Facebook page, to reach out to even more people.
iremembersg: How did the idea for documenting Singapore’s food history come about, and why did you specifically choose this topic above everything else?
TOYY: Without a doubt, Singaporeans are proud of our food. And we say, rightfully so! The team members have all spent some time overseas on exchange, and realised that what we missed most about Singapore was our food. You simply CANNOT find Singapore’s food anywhere outside this region.
Back in the day, Singapore was a largely immigrant society, with our forefathers coming from all around the world. Their cultures intertwined with one another, and the result is that the food we have in Singapore today has been influenced by this marriage of different races.
We eat our favourite Singaporean food everyday without giving it much thought. But each dish actually tells the story of how Singapore has changed over the years. The Tastes of Yesteryear campaign believes that if we know the stories behind our food, then we will know what makes us uniquely Singaporean!
iremembersg: You’ve met and spoken to many hawkers all over Singapore. What were some of the memorable personalities or stories that stood out?
TOYY: It was really interesting to meet people who are so passionate about their craft. There were the hawkers who didn’t want to be interviewed at first, but after some persuasion, they came around and even offered to make special arrangements to come down early the next day so that we could do our interviews! When we spoke to the older hawkers who remember their early days starting out as street hawkers, it was heart-warming to see them smile as they reminiscence about the old days.
One thing striking to us during the course of this project is how food really is an indicator of how society is progressing. Singaporean food has evolved to fit a more health conscious population. Carrot cake used to be fried in lard in the past, but is nowadays replaced with vegetable oil in most stalls. Similarly, evaporated milk replaced coconut milk in the laksa that we all know and love.
We also love how the food manufacturers were so supportive of our project. Hock Lian Huat, Dodo, and Bee Cheng Hiang were excited to know that we were a group of students that wanted to find out more about the food heritage in Singapore, and readily shared with us what they knew.
Learn more about Ngoh Hiang, fishballs and Bak Kwa from Hock Lian Huat, Dodo and Bee Cheng Hiang
iremembersg: How has the response been to the project so far? You’ve spread the word to many young Singaporeans during your university roadshows; what are some of their common sentiments to the project?
TOYY: The response to the project so far has been heartening. Food is something that is close to our hearts, and that is the same for Singaporeans of any age. We actually gave away candy that you usually find in the mamak shops 15-20 years ago to visitors at our roadshows. The common reaction we saw were shrieks of joy when the youth saw something that reminded them about their past.
This was a perfect example of why it’s important to always remember stories from our past. These stories keep us grounded, and remind us that even through the progress that we are making, we must never forget how we got to where we are today. The youth know this, and our campaign serves to remind them of how Singapore has progressed.
iremembersg: What is the biggest challenge your team has faced in getting young people to be interested or even nostalgic about food history of Singapore?
TOYY: Young people today are easily distracted. There are too many things out there vying for their attention, and sometimes, it is difficult to get them to think about their past. That’s why we decided to fight fire with fire, and engage them on the online platforms that they are so comfortable with!
Once they see the familiar comforts of Singaporean foods, it usually gets their attention, and makes our job easier from there!
iremembersg: This must have been a journey of discovery for all of you, as probably much of this food heritage came about before you were born. Would you like to share some of your favourite anecdotes of local food heritage you’ve learnt during this project?
TOYY: Did you know that Indian rojak is dish that directly resulted from the cultural interactions in Singapore? The Indian community saw how the Chinese hawkers were selling food by the streets, and decided to create a dish that would be appealing to the Chinese. So they decided to take typically Indian dishes such as curry puffs and vadai, and adapt them into what we know as Indian rojak today!
Also, we like how street hawkers in the past would customise your dishes for you. All you had to do was to bring additional ingredients like eggs or prawns to the hawker, and request that he fry them into the dish for you. We could think of a hundred and one things that we would like to add to our foods to see how they end up!
At the end of the day, we learnt that food is not simply about which ingredients in a dish, but about the entire experience. The context, in which you eat, plays a huge part in how much you enjoy the dish. All in all, we are just happy to be able to play our part in helping preserve Singapore’s food heritage!
Singapore Memory Project