Friday, November 19, 2010

does food cooked over a
charcoal fire taste better?

picture from national archives of singapore

a lot of people will attest to it: that certain food cooked over a charcoal fire definitely tastes better than if it was cooked in other ways. besides the satay seller, there are still a number of food-vendors that use charcoal to cook their food. think of the sungei road laksa, the clay-pot rice at geylang and clementi, the hokkien mee at the junction of telok kurau and changi roads, some bak kwa stalls and the stalls selling ikan bakar or ikan panggang. will the food taste the same if they switch to using gas or electric grills?

when i was a student, i used to think that charcoal was the local name for coal, the substance that is mined. coal is a readily combustile black or brownish black sedimentary rock found in the earth whereas charcoal is usually made from the stems of trees. this website gives a good and comprehensive account of how charcoal is made from the mangrove tree, specifically, the bakau minyak.

actually, any variety of natural wood can be used to create charcoal. hardwood charcoal is preferred for cooking.

if the charcoal is not fully dried - the one that is slightly brownish black in colour - it will release more smoke when burned.

nowadays, we do not use charcoal in our kitchens. some do use it once in a while, like when they are brewing some herbal concoction or when cooking dumplings during the dragon boat festival or baking love letters for the lunar new year.

i think most of our charcoal comes from indonesia. the picture above (3rd) shows one of the rare shops in singapore that sells charcoal only. each time, we needed to buy lots of charcoal for a bbq in the camp, we would go to this shop on serangoon road.

if you buy your charcoal from the supermarkets or shops for your bbq, it can come in two forms - lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. from the serangoon road's shop, you get lump charcoal but those that come in sealed packets are usually charcoal briquettes.


Lam Chun See said...

In the old 'pre-electric' days, charcoal also used for ironing clothes. See photo of charcoal iron and how it works here.

yg said...

chun see, my mom used that iron during those kampong days. she would first press the hot iron on some banana leaf before starting on the clothes. charcoal gives out more heat and less smoke than wood.

FL said...

yg, like you during my childhood years, my mom used to iron our siblings' school uniforms using the old fashioned iron with charcoal. I remember it was quite heavy, and we helped her to top up more charcoal and fanned it to generate the heat, I think. I also, recall those years, there was a charcoal shop like the one shown in your photo, in our neighbourhood (pre-war shophouses). This shop catered for hawkers, restaurant,households, etc back then.

yg said...

fl, this charcoal shop is also in a 2-storey pre-war house on serangoon road after the hindu temple, near the junction with balestier road. could it be the same shophouse?

FL said...

yg,no not the charcoal shop you've mentioned. As a young kid, my family stayed in one of the tiny rented rooms in the pre-war houses along Bernam Street. Th street was and is still at the junction with Anson Rd. The charcoal shop was the one along this part of Anson Rd with other shops, eg. a barber, tyre shop, curry grinding shop, an Indian shop making gold necklaces/bracelets, and pinball game shop with a jukebox. Due to modernization, all these that I have mentioned are no more if you visit the place now.

Thimbuktu said...

yg, the charcoal-cooked hokkien mee is my personal favorite
here .

however gas-cooking by business is due to lower fuel cost and convenience and environment ministry concern.

yg said...

fl, i just realised there were quite a number of charcoal shops in the 60s and 70s. their sacks of charcoal would be stacked outside the shop. could have been like that in that bernam street's shop? wasn't bernam st in a flood prone area?

yg said...

james, is it true that nea forbid the use of burning charcoal at public food centres?
not many years ago, when i had bak kut teh at seng poh road, i remember they were still using a brazier with burning charcoal to boil the hot water for the chinese tea.

nah said...

During the ghost month auction, fierce biddings are usually fought over ‘black gold’ or ‘orh kim’, which is a lump of charcoal, believed to bring prosperity and wealth to the owner.

Thimbuktu said...

yg, i was told nea forbid the charcoal cooking at certain confined kitchens in restaurants and smoky places. HDB does not allow the use of charcoal the way we used to do in the kampung during early days.

yg said...

james, thanks for the info.

yg said...

nah, the 'orh kim' has lost its lustre at the 7th month festival. it is no longer a hot item at such auctions.
looking at the photos in the national archives, i found out that most of our charcoal used to come from indonesia and thailand. tanjong rhu was the place where the charcoal was first stored.