In the days before eating at a hawker centre became so commonplace, housewives in Singapore would routinely whip up freshly cooked meals for their families. No good kitchen would be complete without condiments such as sambal belachan (a fiery concoction of chilli and shrimp paste) and tau cheo (fermented bean paste).
Yet until the 1950s, cookbooks featuring homespun Asian recipes just did not exist. Recipes were generally passed down orally from mother to daughter and most took the form of hastily scribbled notes that only its owner could make out. Most cookbooks in Malaya and Singapore were written by expatriates for their own community. Publications such as The “Mem’s” Own Cookery Book (1929, 3rd edition) and Y.W.C.A. International Cookery Book of Malaya (1935) – both available at the National Library – typically focused on how to create European dishes using local ingredients, interspersed with Malayan translations of English food names and the nutritional information of indigenous ingredients.
Into this vacuum stepped Ellice Handy, née Ellice Zuberbuhler, a Eurasian and the first Singaporean principal of Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). Among her key tasks was to rebuild the school after the war1 – an assignment she tackled so efficiently that she was awarded the Order of the British Empire when she stepped down as principal in 1957. Even after that, she stayed on as a teacher in the school until her retirement in 1964.2
One of the ways Handy sought to raise funds for the school’s rebuilding was to write a cookbook.3 She readily acknowledged that she was no great cook, but had acquired enough proficiency to create her own recipes and modify others she had tried. These included a dish of chicken and ham with white sauce, one of the first recipes she attempted, which was taught to her by MGS’ English founder Sophia Blackmore.4 Handy compiled and handwrote her original and altered recipes, and published My Favourite Recipes in 1952 – the first cookbook by a Singaporean author. It was sold for $5 a copy.
The book was an instant hit. Handy’s focus on cooking for her family, which involved relentless experiments in adapting recipes to their palates,5 resonated with local women in the post-war baby boom years. Many later claimed to have picked up cooking thanks to Handy’s recipes,6 which were not only tried and tested but easy to replicate at home. In the book’s foreword, the ever practical Handy explains that her work “is not for those who know everything about cooking but for those who have a desire to learn to cook”.7
Handy’s inclusion of Indian, Malay, Chinese and Eurasian fare reflected Singapore’s multicultural society and made her book popular with anyone interested in Asian cuisines.8 Unlike Western cooking, which relied heavily on boiling, baking and roasting, Handy’s recipes involved typically Asian methods such as stir-frying and steaming.9
The ingredients she used were commonly available and her instructions were explained simply. Apart from food preparation, Handy also provided helpful tips such as an explanation of the traditional cooking utensils used in Malayan kitchens, including the batu lesong (pestle and mortar), batu geling (grinding stone made of granite), parut (grater) and kwali (wok).10
My Favourite Recipes has endured the test of time, becoming the longestselling local cookbook in Singapore.11 The book is considered by aficionados as the bible of Singaporean cooking and sparked a wave of local cookery books in Singapore.12
Despite 11 new editions over five decades – in 1954, 1960, 1971, 1972 and 1974, and twice in 1975, 1976, 1980, 1990 and 2012 – Handy’s book has remained largely the same, with the exception of 30 new recipes that were included from the second reprint onwards. The presentation has improved over the years; the first edition contained only text, but photos were added in the fourth and subsequent reprints. The most recent version by Landmark Books in 2014 is an elaborate glossy volume, with the recipes packaged to suit the modern consumer. The National Library has the 1960, 1972, 1974, 1990 and 2012 reprints.
The Malayan Publishing House also produced several Chinese editions of My Favourite Recipes titled Shi shi cai pu (适时菜谱) in 1978 and Hua yuan jin zu shi pu (华园锦族食谱) in 1980. In the 1970s, Handy contributed to the Female Cookbook for eight years and said she considers those to be her better recipes.13 She also wrote another cookbook titled Eastern Exotica (1978), which is a selection of recipes taken from My Favourite Recipes.
Written by: Irene Lim
About the Book
Title: My Favourite Recipes
Author: Ellice Handy (1902–89)
Year published: 1960 (2nd edition)
Publisher: Malaya Publishing House (Singapore)
Type: Book; 113 pages
Location: Call no.: RCLOS 641.595 HAN, Microfilm no.: NL 11802
- Handy, E. (2012). My favourite recipes (p. 9). Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING 641.595 HAN); The school that Sophia built. (1987, July 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Welfare women get awards for service. (1957, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Singapore cookery. (1952, March 31). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Methodist Girls’ School Alumni Association. (1987). Our favourite recipes: Meals from the Asian kitchen (p. 113). Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING 641.595 OUR); Handy, E. (2013). Our favourite recipes (p. 8). Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING 641.595 OUR)
- Handy, 2012, pp. 10–11.
- Lee, G.B. (2000, December 11). I wanna cook like grandma. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Handy, E. (1974). My favourite recipes (p. ii). Singapore: MPH Publications. (Call no.: RSING 641.595 HAN)
- Lee, G.B. (1992, May 17). Still handy after 40 years. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Handy, 1974, p. ii.
- Handy, E. (1960). My favourite recipes (p. vii). Singapore: Malaya Publishing House. (Call no.: RCLOS 641.595 HAN)
- Khor, C. (1989, November 22). A literary stroll down memory lane. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
- Khng, E.M. (1989, June 10). Endearing book and great kitchen aid. The Straits Times, p. 19; Alman, J.H. (1983, August 9). Have spice, will travel. The Straits Times, p. 24 Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Where would we be… without Ellice Handy. (2011, August 9). Retrieved from Gastronaut blogspot; Ellice Handy’s light chicken stew. (2008, October 23). Retrieved from Cherry on a Cake blogspot.
- Ho, M. (1987, August 13). Ex-principal tells of fundraising recipe. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.