Dec 23, 2011

What I Learnt from the 20 Cents Ice-Ball

Ice Ball Booth

It was an offer not to be missed and too good to be true. For two weekends, at two locations in the Brash Basah - Bugis precinct, we are treated to a showcase of some old and dying trade common in the past along alleyways in NHB's Heritage Along Footpaths project. The best part was the price that went with the ware or service from that era. Imagine having your fortune told, savouring an ice-ball and snack on kachang puteh for under a dollar. It was good old nostalgia, so on the second weekend I went back for another peek at the trades and ... a second helping of the ice-ball!

Fortune Tellers at Footpaths
I finally saw the trades along the "five-foot way" (see cobbler here and folks queuing for their fortunes told here). The Chinese and Indian fortune tellers must have enjoyed brisk business, after all no harm in getting your fortune told, right or wrong, at a fixed price of 50 cents like this couple. Can you spot a parrot in the cage and could this parrot be Mani?

Kacang Puteh seller at work
The modern kachang puteh seller. How is he different from his predecessor? He is not dressed in white sarong and turban; he wears a disposable plastic glove to scoop the kachang. How did sellers of old scoop the kachang then?

At the SAM site, the ground was no more sticky like a week ago and I wondered if this had more to do with the rainy season than folks finally gotten used to eating the ice-ball without spilling. The booth was in the midst of changing shift or replenishing the ingredients, which explains the empty queue; when I went back after some shooting around they had resumed business.

The Old and Young at Footpaths
Finally some old folks at the site; the grandfatherly figures I complained were missing during the previous week. I did not spot any of them buy the ice-ball though, and I wonder why.

The thought in my head then was just how authentic is the ice-ball at Footpaths. Obviously I have not lived through the era of the 50s and 60s to have experienced the real deal. We live in a period when ice kachang and chendol have become mainstream; for some reason the ice-ball just died out which just does not make sense. They could have sold it at the pasar malam from the drink stall. Enough theorizing. With the help of the exhibition poster put up, let me now surmise the differences.

The 20 cents Ice Ball!
The ice-ball at Footpaths, admittedly not in the best of form. The ice shavings should not be coarse but fine, like a layer of snow. I do not know the standard in the 50s and 60s for ice-ball; today you still can get the fine snow effect at some dessert stalls (maybe it has to do with the ice shaving machine) and of course in Melaka.

First, and this was a surprise to me, ice-ball sellers were mainly Indian vendors. I have this entrenched thinking they were Chinese, after all ice kachang is sold at dessert stalls operated mainly by Chinese today. I blogged about Hollywood dessert at Bedok Interchange Food Centre, how dad used to buy from them in the 60s outside Hollywood cinema (I suspect the dessert was in the form of an ice-ball), and this is the plce I had my first great taste of chendol. The stall was and still is operated by Chinese, thus the impression struck.

My second point has to do with how the ice-ball was prepared, served and eaten. I knew from reading Chun See's blog that it was prepared with a first-generation hand-operated ice shaver. Next - how it was served - was a shocking realization after I saw the poster photo of an ice-ball seller. Ice-ball in one hand, the Indian adds condensed milk topping from another, grinning from ear to ear. His smile and the fact that his hand was exposed with no "protection" sparked my imagination and made me a bit queasy. Wait, you mean he uses the same hand to handle the money? In the photo the ice-ball was cupped in his left hand, which made it worse. In some cultures the left hand is used for unclean activities and I shall not elaborate. Finally, with baited breath, the ice-ball arrives on the palms of the excited child. The same hands that handled the payment now have to cup the ice with syrup and milk toppings. Be careful the melted ice do not stain your clothes! When all is done, I can imagine the rush to the nearest public toilet or standpipe, or did they not clean up after eating?

At Footpaths, the booth was manned by two guys subjected to a more hygienic code of conduct. One operated the ice-shaver machine and moulded the shaved ice into a ball; the other was in charge of adding the milk and syrup. Thank goodness the organizers decided to do away with the payment collection part - we were to drop our 20 cents into a tin container. I guess this does not stop you from giving more than the stated amount.

Young "tradesmen" at work
One works the ice shaved using a modern machine into a ball while the other decorates it with colored syrup and milk.

I was fortunate because the guy on duty decided to reveal the ingredients for the toppings and in a creative manner too. I do not think they are required to do so at the ice-ball booth. From four unlabelled round plastic containers, we now know some of the ingredients used. Let us go through the bottles and cans on display: F&N Evaporated Creamer, Bickford's Old Style Sarsaparilla, Bickford's Creamy Soda and Bickford's Old Style Ginger Beer. Basically Bickford's Old Style Sodas. Bickford's has been making cordials and aerated drinks since 1874; the company first started in 1839 as an apothecary. Do they ring a bell to you? Now I wonder if the original ice-balls had Bickford's on them!

The Four Colors
Decorating your ball with color and milk! Can you guess the ingredients just by the color and taste?

Evaporated creamer, ginger beer, sarsaparilla and creamy soda
The ingredients showcased to impress. Bickford soda from Australia and F&N evaporated creamer.


Lam Chun See said...

As I commented in Jerome's blog, the 'ladle' for scooping the sugar syrup is not authentic. In the old days, they used a metallic ladle (brass colour) with a cylindrical scoop and at the end of the handle, it is curved U-shape; just big enough to go round your finger.

But I think handling the ice ball with bare hands is definitely authentic. LOL.

As to why the oldies do not relish the ice ball anymore, the answer is simple. We are living in a different world now, Ice ball belongs to the world of black and white Wong Fei Hong movies. It was nothing but ice with sugar. If having 'tasted' Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, would you still enjoy B&W Wong Fei Hung movies? Neither would you enjoy iceballs, having tasted today's durian ice-kacangs and Heigen Daaz.

That's why I thought it was unrealistic for people to clamour that Kampong Buang Kok be preserved.

BTW, the iceball seller in my kampong used the 2nd generation ice shaving machine; the one where you crank the circular wheel with the right hand.

FL said...

I quite agree with what Chun See had said about the way they prepared,served and savoured the ice balls are unlike the true original ways during my school kid days ! I also remember the hawkers will stored their ice blocks in containers covered with saw dusts. Back in the old days, ice-ball sellers and other hawkers usually operated around noon times outside the school gates.

fr said...

Ice-balls were mainly for children. They enjoyed tossing the ball between their hands and sucking off the syrup from the surface. I don't remember seeing my father eating ice-balls.

I believe another reason oldies do not relish ice-balls anymore is that they are more conscious of their health and ice-balls are not healthy snacks.

Icemoon said...

What the oldies said agree with my observation. In the photo showing the two old folks, they were snacking on kacang puteh, not ice-ball.

The ice-ball in Footpaths would not tahan the stress-testing like "tossing the ball between their hands". Especially if one bought it "around noon time" outside former SJI, lol

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