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The poor man’s potato

Thanks to National Education and constant reminders about the suffering endured during the Japanese Occupation, most Singaporeans are familiar with tapioca and how it was an emergency ration during the war years of 1942 to 1945. An area in the east of Singapore was even named after the root - Kampong Ubi.

Credit: David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In a wonderful bit of foreshadowing, this column appeared in The Straits Times in 1937, written by Anak Singapura, the pseudonym of editor George Peet (yes, the author of the invaluable time capsule Rickshaw Reporter). The column introduced tapioca to the newspaper’s readers, which would have been mostly Europeans who had never heard of the root before, let alone tasted it.

Breakfast Kayu

Today let us talk about tapioca. There is something very satisfying about tapioca - to the soul, I mean, as well as the stomach - in these days when the headlines are full of guns and warplanes and other products of our magnificent civilisation. For tapioca takes us back to earthy, elemental unchanging things. It is the poor man’s potato in Malaya.

And very good too. I had my first ubi kayu for breakfast this week, having asked our ayah to serve it exactly as she was accustomed to eat it herself.

She placed before me a large white root, scraped, boiled and sprinkled with sugar, and tasting rather like a mealy potato but nicer, having a chestnutty flavour which the potato does not possess.

The Sakai, I learnt from Mr. Noone’s radio address, start the day with a hot roast tapioca root, and I now know that they might fare very much worse.

Not “Yellow Peril”

As I can see many Europeans involuntarily gagging at the mere mention of tapioca I hasten to explain that this vegetable, as cooked and eaten fresh from the garden in Malaya, bears no resemblance to the loathsome, glutinous, yellow pudding of shark’s-fin-soup consistency which used to overshadow our lives in our nursery days. No, the local ubi kayu is a really excellent vegetable, and Europeans could easily use it (together with the sweet potato) instead of imported potatoes if the necessity arose.

But at present, as I have remarked, it is the poor man’s potato. It grows anywhere and everywhere, taking 18 months to mature and yielding ten tons of roots per acre.

In the kampong land on both sides of Grove Road, just before reaching Joo Chiat Village, sheets of tapioca have appeared under the coconut palms in the last two years. One wonders why. The probable explanation is that out-of-work men in that suburb are turning to the local equivalent of the British working-man’s allotment.

Little would Peet have predicted that, in just a few years, the “poor man’s potato” would be planted all over the island out of necessity, and become a lifesaver for hundreds of thousands of people!

A tapioca farm in 1959. Credit: The Ralph Charles Saunders Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.


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