Have a Break, Have a Kacang Puteh

When was the last time you had kacang puteh?

It used to be one of the favourite snacks for movie-goers, dating couples at the theme parks and football fans watching an exciting match. Nowadays, there are not many kacang puteh (“white nuts or beans” in Malay; other spelling variations are kacang putih and kachang puteh) vendors left in Singapore.

There is one just outside the Peace Centre though, where the humble mobile stall is manned by a husband-and-wife team since the early 2010s. They offer a wide variety of titbits to choose from – from the usual peanuts – roasted, sugared or salted – to chickpeas (kacang kuda), green peas, cashews, corns, tapioca and even murukku. The customer can choose one type of snack or mix several together. The vendor will then scoop and wrap the titbits with a piece of white paper into a conical shape that makes it easy for the customer to carry and eat. The wrapping medium in the past used to be newspapers or pages torn from old school exercise books, but they are no longer used due to hygiene concerns.

Each cone of kacang puteh is priced between $1 and $1.50, depending on the type of snacks. Back in the sixties and seventies, one could help himself with a kacang puteh treat at anything between 5c and 10c. For example, in 1977, kacang puteh typically cost 10c each. By comparison, a copy of the Sunday Times was 30c and a packet of nasi lemak cost 50c. The price of kacang puteh rose to 30c to 40c by the late eighties.

Kacang puteh vendors of the past mostly came from Tanjore, South India (present-day Thanjavur district). The daily work of a kacang puteh vendor typically started at 5am, when he would use sand to fry the peanuts to bring out the natural flavour of the nuts. This usually took three hours. Firewood used for the cooking would enhance the peanut flavour but the usage of gas became more common by the eighties. When ready, the vendor would make his way to his designated spot outside the cinema to sell his kacang puteh.

Many old kacang puteh vendors dreamt of making enough and returning to their home towns. Some made it, most did not and eventually settled in Singapore. Several, after paying for the rental, accommodation and remittance back home, could barely survive and had to take on second jobs such as the night watchman.

As time changed and the society evolved, kacang puteh vendors also faced different types of challenges. First, the supermarkets all around Singapore offer similar titbits and snacks available in bulks and at lower prices. Also, movie goers’ taste have switched to the likes of popcorns and hotdogs. Moreover, the movie industry entered a slump in the nineties, leading to the closure of many old cinemas.

Food hygiene practices and food safety standards for street hawkers also became more stringent. In 1974, the Ministry of the Environment carried out islandwide checks and inspection, resulting in 180 hawkers, including dozens of kacang puteh sellers, being warned or fined for contaminated food or operating without licenses. A parliamentary session in 1985 debated the public health issue and how the relocation of street hawkers had affected the kacang puteh and rojak sellers.

In 1975, the Ministry of Education disallowed school tuckshops from selling unwholesome food such as prickled and unripe fruits, but kacang puteh, popular among the students, managed to avoid the ban as the food was typically cooked, dry and had low possibility of deterioration.

If you happen to pass by Peace Centre next time, do show your support to this fading trade. You can at the same time relive some of those good old memories with a tasty cone of kacang puteh.

Published: 1 December 2021

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6 Responses to Have a Break, Have a Kacang Puteh

  1. Fun trivia 1 – Two winning racehorses in 1970 were named Kacang Puteh and Goreng Pisang.

    Fun trivia 2 – There was a popular http://www.kacangputeh.com in the late nineties but the website ceased to exist in 2000 after the owner retired.

  2. Benedict V Peter says:

    When I was little & living in Sembawang Hills Estate we used to have kachang puteh men walking down the street carrying their wares on the turbans which were on their heads. Our mum used to give us a few cents to buy the treats & the men would put down their loads, sit on a small stool & sell to the people in the street. All the kids in the street would get together & eat out kachang puteh & socialise.

  3. Peace Centre may be demolished and redeveloped in near future…

    Peace Centre/Peace Mansion goes for $650m to Singapore firms in private treaty deal

    3 December 2021
    The Straits Times

    A group involving several Singapore-listed companies has made a successful $650 million offer for Peace Centre/Peace Mansion in a private treaty deal following the close of its collective sale tender earlier this year, the companies announced on Friday (Dec 3).

    The group comprises Chip Eng Seng, a SingHaiyi joint venture and Ultra Infinity, which is equally owned by a unit of KSH Holdings, SLB Development and Ho Lee Group.

    The SingHaiyi joint venture, Sing-Haiyi Crystal, is 50/50 held by a SingHaiyi Group subsidiary and an entity controlled by Singapore billionaire couple Gordon Tang and his wife Celine. The couple are controlling shareholders of both SingHaiyi and Chip Eng Seng.

    Chip Eng Seng and SingHaiyi had in May partnered with Chuan Investments to clinch Maxwell House for $276.8 million in an en bloc tender.

    Peace Centre/Peace Mansion made its sixth attempt at a collective sale in September this year, with the owners expecting offers in excess of $650 million.

    Located at 1 Sophia Road, the District 9 property was built around 1977. It comprises 232 commercial units, 86 apartments and a carpark with 162 lots, totalling 319 strata lots in a 10-storey front podium block and a rear 32-storey tower.

    The site currently has a 99-year tenure starting from June 2, 1970. The joint offerors will seek in-principle approval from the Singapore Land Authority to issue a fresh 99-year lease.

    They will also seek approval from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to redevelop the property into a mixed-use commercial and residential development. The site, which spans 7,118 sq m, is currently zoned “commercial”.

    Chip Eng Seng, Sing-Haiyi Crystal and Ultra Infinity will form a joint venture for the property’s acquisition and redevelopment. Chip Eng Seng will hold the largest stake at 40 per cent, with the two partners taking 30 per cent each.

    The acquisition is subject, among others, to the joint offerors obtaining a sale order approving the collective sale, meeting planning criteria and getting the lease topped up.

    Peace Centre/Peace Mansion is near shopping amenities such as Bugis Junction, Bugis+, Plaza Singapura, The Cathay, Wilkie Edge and GR.iD. There are also six MRT stations within 1km distance – Rochor, Bencoolen, Dhoby Ghaut, Bras Basah, Little India and Bugis.

    The development is also near educational institutions such as Singapore Management University, the School of the Arts, Lasalle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Kaplan City Campus.

    Schools within a 1km radius include St Margaret’s Primary School and Stamford Primary School. Others within 2km of the site include Anglo-Chinese School (Junior), Farrer Park Primary School, River Valley Primary School and St Joseph’s Institution Junior.


  4. Tang Siew Ngoh says:

    I was told in the olden days kachang puteh men selling their nuts at night used light from a flame burning at the top of a metal rod pushed through a small Ovaltine can filled with cow dung as fuel. Have you seen or are you aware of such instances? I googled but couldn
    t find any image or information on such itinerant kachang puteh men with cow dung lights.

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