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