Headlines, Lifelines

  Tapioca for
  tapioca for
  tapioca for

Moses pic

Hungry years

It is probably hard to appreciate how Singaporeans felt when they woke up on Feb 16, 1942.

The British had just surrendered to the Japanese the day before, heralding a 3 year period of deprivation, making-do and malnutrition.

That day fell on the second day of the Lunar New Year of the Horse. Not that anyone was in the mood to celebrate although, if he were so inclined, there were the hoarded emergency food supplies to dig into.

Even these ran out before long and, apart from the wealthy or those with Japanese connections, substitutes for rice, bread, milk and other foods became regular items on the dining table.

Talk of Japanese Occupation fare and everyone who has lived through it mentions sweet potatoes and tapioca. It was "tapioca for breakfast, tapioca for lunch and tapioca for dinner".

The ubiquitous ubi kayu, which most people think of as a dessert, provided wonderful ballast for empty stomachs. Boiled with coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar, it made a good snack.

Steamed and cut into strips, the tapioca could be turned into fries. Mashed into flour, it could be made into kropok. The flour could also be used to make sago flour beads, even bread and noodles although neither was a success. Sweet potatoes were a great substitute for scarce rice. A few added to a pot of porridge or rice fed more hungry mouths. The tubers made the rice more nutritious too since they are rich in vitamins and high in fibre.


(grow your own)

There were features in the Occupation diet which would delight today's advocates of more healthy eating. The meals were certainly low in fat, meat and sugar but high in fibre. After all, the most common, most easily available food was vegetables. Many vegetables were home-grown -- hunger turned anyone with a bit of a yard into a gardener. Even before the Occupation, the authorities were already harping on the need to increase supplies of home-grown food.

In 1941, the Department of Information issued a free pamphlet, Grow Your Own Vegetables: Practical Hints for War-time Gardeners.

During the Occupation, the Japanese also promoted home-grown food. Seeds were given away, agricultural exhibitions were held and some Singaporeans were resettled in rural Endau and Bahau in Malaysia to grow food crops.

In Singapore, flowers and trees gave way to similar pursuits. Students had to spend part of their time in school tending vegetable plots. Some home gardeners with green thumbs grew enough to barter what they could not eat for things they wanted.

Hawkers still came round to many doorsteps and excess long beans or kangkong could be exchanged for another vegetable or a piece of fish, if any.

City folks reared poultry and even pigs, if space allowed. However, not everyone had to sweat it out for his next meal.

Some had gone into the Occupation with plenty of assets, like silverware, tablecloths, towels or clothing -- or hidden stocks of Straits dollars. These could be sold or bartered for food in the black market.

  Bread was
  hard or

Moses pic

hard, rubbery food

Those who patronised the latter did not have to queue for rations. Even then, no one was assured of getting anything unless they were near the head of the line.

Hence, there was an incentive to get up in the wee hours of the morning to be in front of everyone else.

Rumours of new supplies in the shops usually brought out the queues very quickly. Even if you had no use for whatever was available, you bought it anyway so you could barter it for something else later.

Sometimes though, the quality of the food people had waited so long to buy did not come up to expectations. Bread and noodles were hard or rubbery. Rice had weevils or stones. Sugar was damp or adulterated.

Meanwhile, the flavour of so many dishes was so bad that some people preferred to do without or learnt to make what they needed. Home-grown, home-made items were common. There were far fewer ingredients to play around with, and recipes were simple and uncomplicated. In the absence of imported ingredients, local food and flavourings were highlighted.

The common coconut made many dishes far more palatable. No one had heard of saturated fat in the oil, and even if they did, all that mattered was making the kangkong or ubi kayu taste better.

Soya sauces, taucheo, dried shrimps, belacan and chillies were basic to many dishes. The "ang moh" prisoners of war in the camps came to appreciate the fiery chilli too for the boost it gave to an otherwise dull diet.

On the rare occasion, extra rations would be released to celebrate a special festival, like the birthday of the Japanese Emperor.

Moses' start page
  Moses pic

Usually, festivals were low-key affairs, especially without a groaning table. Still, there were people who made the effort and guests usually brought their own food to share.

If that contribution was something long hoarded like a tin of corned beef or ham, then every morsel was savoured. Nothing whets the appetite like scarcity which may be why the rich foods of today have to be increasingly exotic to stimulate jaded taste buds.

But during the war years, many would have been happy just to sit down to a simple bowl of porridge without worrying what fresh disasters the day would bring.

First published in The Straits Times on Feb 16, 1992.


Copyright 1998 Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.