Welcome to the kampong kitchen! In this post, we’ll explore the kampong kitchen, birthplace of Singapore cuisine, and what kampong cooks used to create tasty meals for their families!
To learn more about Singapore cuisine history, please be sure to check out our previous post about Singapore food history and its origins.
What’s in the kampong kitchen?
The kampong kitchen is nothing like the modern kitchen we are used to. It had no refrigerators, modern stoves, appliances or running water.
It was a rustic kitchen outfitted with extremely basic items like a cleaver, chopping block, a few pots and pans (especially a deep wok known as a kuali), a kettle for boiling water, wood stove, fire tongs and a palm leaf fan for stoking the fire.
Many kampong kitchens also had a wooden cupboard lined with wire mesh. This cupboard was used for storing dishes and food, and the wire mesh prevented insects and chichaks (geckos) from getting to the food while also allowing for ventilation.
This is an extremely important feature because in Singapore kampongs, windows are often left open for ventilation and there are no window screens to keep out bugs. This means that every kampong dwelling houses its fair share of household pests and yes, even rats.
Cooking with fire
For most of Singapore’s food history, kampong kitchens had no modern gas or electric stoves.
Food was cooked on wood stoves with firewood collected from the wild or purchased from sawmills. Charcoal and kerosene were sometimes used but it was less commonly used because they cost a lot more than wood.
If you have ever manned a BBQ grill, then you know that cooking with fire is unpredictable and tricky, and can make cooking even more challenging. Wood fires also created a lot of smoke and indoor kampong kitchens were often hazy from poor ventilation.
Cooking with what you have
The kampong cook did not have the luxury of a well-stocked fridge or pantry.
Shopping was done once a day and people only bought what they could use up that day because there was no way to keep food fresh.
The exception was for ingredients with a longer shelf life like rice, dried/salted seafood and preserved vegetables.
These shelf-stable food items allowed the kampong cook to put food on the table on days when fresh vegetables and meat were not available.
Who were the kampong cooks?
A kampong cook of early Singapore was usually a woman in charge of cooking for her large extended family. Not only did she have to cook three meals a day, she was also responsible for the care of young children, elderly parents, and the general running of the household.
There was also livestock and vegetable gardens to tend to, and laundry and cleaning, all of which she did even when she was pregnant!
It was a hard life and yet, she managed to churn out meal after meal for her family without fail. For without the kampong cook, the family would simply starve.
And it is through the labor of these remarkable kampong cooks that Singapore cuisine was born and nurtured into the world-renowned cuisine we know today.