Red Palm Oil

May 4, 2013

Outside of the United States red palm oil is one of the most widely consumed oils in the world. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants it is a popular dietary supplement and cooking oil.  On the other hand, it is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants and ink.

It certainly had its uses for the POW along with other miracle fare such as hibiscus leaves, rice polishings and Marmite.

At Kranji there were lectures on red palm oil.  My father was there and naturally took copious notes.   He listed the oil’s many uses (from soap making to dog food), devoted a whole page to the process by which it was made and quoted the lecturer (a Major A.C. Smith) as saying that it “until recently” it had not been considered edible.  Well, quite.

(In fact, red palm oil was being consumed especially in West Africa where, as a 1932 article in the Biochemistry Journal noted, it had much the same function in the diet as olive oil had in Europe.)

Clearly, red palm oil was a bit of an acquired taste.  In Wartime Kitchen, Wong Hong Suen notes that it had previously been used for lighting lamps.  It had “an unpleasant smell and an acerbic taste.”  Both could be mitigated somewhat by adding soda (used for washing clothes) to the boiling oil.  Still, in a time of acute shortage the civilian population found it both cheap and widely available.

The oil available at Changi and Kranji was apparently of a fairly crude variety.  I can only imagine what it tasted like though my father never said much about that.  Along with many of his fellow POW, no doubt, he was more concerned with its after effects.  Here is one typical note from Kranji.

Red Palm Oil

The noticeable augmentation of Red Palm Oil to our diet (particularly in the morning porridge) resulted in a considerable loosening of the bowels.

By eating this oil in excess of the usual quantities it is found to have a beneficial effect on the healing of skin abrasions.  When at one time such sores took days to heal (if they did not develop into tropical ulcers) they now seem to heal without any ill effects.

Peanut butter as a laxative

February 7, 2010

I doubt whether my father tasted peanut butter before arriving in Singapore, or even knew what it was.  It would have been a rarity in English shops before the War and for that matter some time after it.  Even at Changi he didn’t seem to know what to call it but wrote a note about its laxative properties, at least when on a rice diet.

On the following page he provided a recipe.  As usual, the language is more that of the scientific observer than the gourmand.

Peanuts

An appetizing way of serving these is to grind them up with a pestle & mortar until the oils are caused to form a vehicle for the remaining solids & a thick paste is obtained.  This paste may be spread, like butterscotch, on toast or bread & butter.

Book B, p.4


My father’s third notebook in Singapore was fashioned out of ‘The “Justso” Investment Register’ made by Henstocks stationers of Bristol. Curiously, it was labeled ‘Book B’ on the inside cover though it was the third of his Singapore notebooks in chronological order; the second, equally curiously, having been labeled ‘Book C.’

The first entry has to do with “the effect of certain gargles upon septic substances.” The second reads like a tropical parody of Mrs. Beeton.

Coconuts

The correct method of opening a coconut is to:
(1) punch two of the three micropyles (one of which is easy to pierce) & drain off the juice.
(2) Lay the nut on its side in the palm of the hand & strike it across the middle with a sharp heavy instrument. The nut will then crack transversely & break into two halves.

A Changi Christmas

December 23, 2009

My father was admitted to Roberts Hospital with pellagra on November 9, 1942 and not discharged until February 5, 1943.  He kept daily notes on his condition and treatment but the only time he permitted himself any observations of the world about him was on Christmas Day.  The following notes are reproduced more or less in full though a few unreadable words and passages have been omitted.  He crams a lot into them.  The one comment I’d add now is that they include the only reference I’ve been able to find to the Alexandra Hospital incident  in any of the notebooks other than the three eyewitness accounts that I suspect were written down near to the end of his captivity.

Xmas 1942

Roberts Hospital, a patient with Pellagra, the B1 vitamin deficiency disease – indulging in too much polished rice to the exclusion of cereals & other good things.  Complicated with Tinea Cruris & tertiary infection of Diphtheria & other odds & ends.

Passed a miserable night, having been tortured by the relays of bed bugs which have their homes in the crevices of the bed & mattress & which I am at present quite powerless to eradicate.  However, managed to get off to sleep during the early morning & slept soundly until about 8.30am when I was awakened by the sound of tea mugs being deposited on the tray. A lovely cup of hot milked & sweetened tea followed (the first “official” one for about 6 months)

Later had breakfast of cornflour porridge (sweetened) followed by Tomato (complete with skins & pips) & a thin slice of tongue (unheard of!).  Also 2 slices of rice bread (4” x 2”) the one with army butter (margarine?) the other with pineapple jam (v. good).  Somebody heard to say “You lucky patients”

At this time Ack Ack Williams Pte. popped in to wish a Merry (if possible) Xmas.  I reiterated that I would not add “many of em.”

Contemplating partaking of a noxious Kum Lan cigarette made of cherry leaves  & costing 15c in the Canteen (a rise of some 500%!) –  product of Godfrey Philips India Ltd. Victory V Cigarettes  (which incredibly depicts a V over the rising sun).

At 9.30 a service started over in the next ward accompanied by a rather unsteady accordion. Starts of with “Come Ye, Come Ye to Bethlehem” (rather impossible in the circumstances).  Preaches something about Peace on earth & goodwill towards men (somewhat ironical) & continues with Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”(!)

Toffees (very sticky but very acceptable) distributed to each man.   Another 2 followed out of the blue given by Red X officer who wished me Merry Xmas.   A second pkt of Victory V cigarettes & biscuits followed.  Scoffed many biscuits & sweets.

Bill Sayer came in later in morning & said what an awful breakfast he had.  Couldn’t eat it.  Mabela (?) was full of maggots, biscuits were made of rice & like leather.  Coco  had no sugar & little milk.  Lent me a novel “The Arches of the Years” by Ethel Boileau (Hutchinson & Co London) which incidentally originally belonged to one Carlyle Morier  a sanitary inspector not residing at the POW camp Changi.

Bill’s visit interrupted by Company Officer & RSM Painter who came to wish me a Merry Christmas, a quick recovery & gave a pkt of 3 Castle’s cigarettes & smoked one each.

“Get ready for the first course”– pea soup, clear (& good) followed by the 2nd & 3rd courses.  Tiffin consisted of a slice of pork (tender & thin & easily cut with the spoon) sweet potato & local pumpkin set in thick brown gravy.  Somebody protested that the latter had been made with burnt rice but the server indignantly replied that he could assure him it was not & added that if this f—–g sauce hasn’t got some rum in it I’ve picked a (unreadable).”  This sauce was poured over a goodly block of excellent Christmas pudding.

After some reading of Bill’s book Williams came in said tiffin was lousy.  Consisted of a cup of bully beef 1 ¼ inch square, 2 thin slices from a small beetroot, & split pea soup & no sweet.  His temper was cooled down however by a piece of Christmas pudding given him legally for his ward, a couple of Cheroots for his Wardmaster.  I fed him on toffees & a cigarette.  Left later to attend a concert in his ward.  Talked of field kitchens, roast duck, boiled rice biscuits et. al.

Continued to read ‘The Arches of the Years” with breaks for toffees, biscuits & cigarettes throughout the afternoon.

Tea consisted of milk sweetened tea but with no bread.  Then there was also no Marmite or indeed treatment of any kind (the MO looked in about dinner time).

Dinner consisted of only one dixie, Cornish pastie (m & v in rice pastie) rice, a few long beans & a slice of Yorkshire pudding.  Also a mug of milk sweetened tea.  Took the rice to keep me in trim.

Read Bill’s book till Bill Batty came in.  Brought 2 tangerines (I asked for a couple of mangos for Christmas the last time he visited with no hope of seeing them.  Even now it is doubtful of their origin).  Also a promised book “Days of Our Years” by Pierre Van Paassen (?) (Angus & Robertson Ltd, London, 1940) also some peanuts to eat while we chatted.  Chatted of old times in Malaya, the war & the Alexandra Hospital tragedy & the loss of Arthur Collins & his pal Sidall who I relieved at Tekong.  Later conversation interrupted by Farrant coming in for his daily evening chat.  Conversation soon changed to watches, one Batty gave to F with hand missing.  Belonged to Bill Brandt who capped the lot by also appearing on the scene.  Soon left on pretext of Batty to go to the boreholes.  Farrant remained to eat part of tangerine, peanuts & a cigarette.  Talked of news – advance in Burma, 100 mile road with 50 bridges cutting off water. Later turned to architecture & chances of getting out of here.

After cup of coco made bed!  Later Ack Ack Williams came along & started to tell some jokes but was soon interrupted by McNeil (orderly) who came along with the red hot news that the Russians were moving south along the Polish frontier.  Lights out went soon after.

Book D, 17-18



Bird’s Nest Soup

September 27, 2009

This was written fairly soon after my father arrived at Changi and appears among a number of notes about local Chinese culture, including references to such miscellaneous topics as ablution ceremonies, feuding, green tea (easily recognized by its “peculiar smell” and “said to give much energy”) and Chinese cigarettes.  The cigarettes were said to be “good for the teeth” though he was doubtful about that given that “most Chinese” seemed to have poor teeth.

Later in the notes there would be a much more detailed recipe.

Bird’s Nest Soup

This is a great delicacy amongst the Chinese but is very expensive.  Buying by bulk, the birds’ nests cost as much as 12 dollars a kattie (1 1/4 lbs). The nests themselves are very small & are made entirely of the birds’ saliva. Before they are served as food the Chinese keep them in a certain way for a certain time to “season” them.  The nests are said to be a good ‘pick-me-up’ for enemics (sic).  They are great blood restorers.

(Book C, page 116)

Green Frogs

September 16, 2009

Both before he was captured and during his first months at Changi, my father made frequent notes about the food eaten by the local Chinese, Indian and Malay populations.  It is not clear to me how he gained this information after his capture though there was a good deal of freedom of movement during the early weeks at Changi and from what he told me there was always a level of contact with local inhabitants.  That was how he obtained his writing materials, for instance.

Whether the dishes he noted were at all representative I cannot say.  It seems to me that his selection probably tended to the colorful and exotic, at least from his perspective.  But that would have been natural enough.

Here is a dish eaten by the Chinese in Singapore, though the recipe is a little short on detail.  It was probably written around May or June, 1942.

Green Frogs

These frogs are about 1 1/2 inches long and occur fairly commonly in Malaya in flat grassland which is low lying and although subject to periodic flooding does not remain waterlogged for very long.  The frogs are nocturnal in their habits.

The frogs are eaten chiefly by the Chinese population and parties of men go out with torches at night to collect them.  About 200 of the frogs make a meal for about 4 people.

Only the hind legs & portions of the rump are consumed.  The frogs are cut up when they are alive.

The method of preparing the frogs is uncertain.  The result, however, is said to be very similar to young pigeon.

(Book C, page 230.)

As was noted on the next page, both wild and domesticated pigeon were eaten.  Wild pigeon were “commonly shot” in Malaya while domesticated pigeon were killed after they had left the nest but before they had laid their second batch of eggs.  Wild pigeon were “excellent prepared as pigeon pie.”