Text and Image by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra
Canned food like these were common commissaries that prisoners used to 'masak'.
When a prisoner is faced with the same monotonous, bland and repetitive food month after month, year in and year out, a desperate sense of creativity comes over them. They attempt illegal ‘masak’. (Read Underground Prison Cuisine.)
They stashed away food from their official lunch and dinners, combined it with their commissaries and created albeit illegally, some of the best “jail cell” delicacies.
Prison breakfast in the old days was limited to just bread, hence, ex-convicts like Tan Cheng Huat would boil milk, crushed biscuits and fruits to make cereals. He also mixed crushed biscuits, peanut butter and condensed milk to spread over bread, a refreshing change from the usual jam and kaya given by the prison.
For savoury food, Benny Se Teo, who spent most of the 11 years between 1982 and 1993 in prison, would mix shrimp paste and milk to make laksa curry. “There are no other ingredients to eat it with, but in the prison, this was considered very happening already,” he says. He now coincidentally, runs the successful 18 Chefs restaurants, and help train and reform ex-offenders seeking a new life as chefs and managers.
Josiah Teh, who was incarcerated from 1978 to 2009, soaked orange skin in water with sugar and salt, and then sunned them for one or two days to make candied orange peel. When he was locked up at the Jalan Awan prison, he would plucked unripe mangoes from a tree and soaked them in sugared solution for days to make “kiam seng di” (preserved fruit snack).
There were no rules as to how food should be prepared, or what ingredients made the perfect match. But there was one realisation and afterthought – these special creations should not be attempted outside prison.
When Josiah was released, he replicated one of the foods to impress his mother, “I mixed canned pig trotter, luncheon meat, ikan bilis, salted vegetable, tofu, vegetables, and even topped it up with a can of abalone,” he recounts. “She complained it was too salty. That was when I noticed it for the first time.”