i ate tiong bahru is a self-published book by artist/writer Stephen Black. Despite having received almost no support from governmental or media institutions, it has become a national bestseller and preparations are now underway for a second edition. The success of i ate tiong bahru has been due to word of mouth and I am very grateful to those who have enjoyed iatb and told others. I apologize that the format of this post does not follow that of the book....
Dewali in Galicier
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks.
The back room of Galicier, the pastry shop on Tiong Bahru Road. Rain taps the tin roof as Pricilia and I stand near the shiny, tube-like contraption.
“Let’s do it!”
I lower my head slowly; I could be scalded. Pricilia quickly lifts the lid. Flavored steam rushes at me. My open mouth, my nose, my chin, my eyelids, even my forehead; all suddenly become one happy tastebud. I gulp the delicate, narcotic vapor. Immediately I become an angel in a heavenly cloud of butterscotch. I become a warm knife gliding over soft pancake butter and maple syrup. A streetlight in a tropical mist of caramel, a kite in a windy molasses sky. I am steamed gula melakka.
Pricilia smiles. “That is why I like making fuat kueh.”
Gula melakka thrills me. It’s organic – yes! Produced in the countryside, it allows people to develop their own businesses without moving to cities – yes! It’s full of vitamins – yes! It tastes great – double yes! Gula melakka is a traditional “medicinal sugar” in the Ayurvedic tradition and one of the world’s first spices. Long produced throughout Southeast Asia, gula melakka is known by many names, including jaggery, gur and palm sugar. The word ‘sugar’ is derived from the Sanskrit equivalent of gula melakka.
Strictly speaking, gula melakka is made only from the Palmyra palm. However, gula melakka is often made by small independent producers, each likely having a different production method. Some producers, for example, include refined sugar or add sap from other types of palm trees. Interestingly, the pure, fresh sap from the palmyra palm tree is also the basis for the alcoholic drink known as toddy.
The owner of Galicier, Mr. Y.S. Tan, grew up in a kampung where gula melakka was made. He often saw men quickly shimmy up trees to then slice and smash flowering buds with mallets. The men would then affix a “Mongolian pouch” or clay pot to the wounded buds and climb back down. The next morning the sap was collected, boiled and poured into bamboo tubes or glass molds. After the water vapor evaporated, the hard pieces of gula melakka were wrapped in paper and sold.
When Jenny was a child, gula melakka came wrapped in coconut leaves. Over eighty years ago, her grandfather, utilizing the skills he’d learned “from the Europeans,” set up a bakery named Ton Lok Wee. After he returned to Hainan, Jenny’s father took over the bakery. Mr. Tan began working for Jenny’s father in 1969, when he was eleven. Eventually, Tan Lok Wee closed, mainly because of the expansion of Orchard Road. When Mr. Tan decided to set up his own bakery, he had a partner: Jenny. The two were married thirty-three years ago.
Half of the people in Galicier gathered around me, trying to explain its Chinese name. To write something like ‘Ga-li- cier’ in Chinese, three characters are used: ka li jia. Ka means something like ‘invitation to an event with the feeling of a wedding or family get-together’. Li could mean ‘power’ or ‘profit’ and jia means ‘family’ or ‘good’. Something like that. Mr. Tan also told me that Galicier is a city in Brazil.
On the wall behind the cash register, are two photos of Ton Lok Wee. The largest, a black and white street scene of Orchard Road, was taken in 1975. Behind the bakery is a wallsized advertisement for the “natural living color” of Setron TV. Also in the photo is the famous parking lot that, at night, became filled with food stalls, strings of lights and people eating and drinking, all surrounded by colonial architecture.
Jenny moves her finger over the photo, remembering the Cold Storage, the bottom of Emerald Hill Road, Centre- point and her father’s bakery. Taped onto the photograph’s white sky is a faded color photograph of Ton Lok Wee. In front of the bakery a young girl smiles at the camera. Her name is Soh Kee Soon and she’s Jenny’s eldest sister.
Soh Kee Soon is now seventy years old and sitting next to me. She is methodically cutting blocks of gula melakka; shaving and crumbling it. The shop uses as much as three kilos a day. The radio plays Madonna and Eighties dance music, but the rhythm of Galicier is the tapping of Soh Kee Soon’s knife against the cutting board.
(i ate tiong bahru on Amazon)