The Double Deaths of Toddy and Bluder Cake

Bluder cake in NerdBaker.

Bluder cake as shown in NerdBaker.

More than 50 years ago, a local Eurasian kitchen would get busy and greasy with the making of cakes and jellies for Christmas, days before the family would have a feast. One of these desserts was blueder, a rich, golden brown ring cake that was dense like a bread from the use of no less than 30 egg yolks. The cake originates from the Netherlands, and is enjoyed by people with Dutch colonial links, such as the Sri Lankan Burghers and the Malaccan Eurasians. They refer to their localised interpretations as breudher and kueh bluder respectively.

A bundt pan likely inspired their names. Both cakes are moulded into distinctive ring shapes with either straight or swirling ridges. “Breudher” and “bluder” sound like anglicised “brood-tulband”, which is how the Dutch refers to all ring cakes. “Brood-tulband” literally means bread-turban, because they associate the swirls on bundt cakes with the winding headwear.

Bundt cake. By Betsy Weber via Flickr.

Bundt cake. By Betsy Weber via Flickr.

Turban. By mukerjichinmoy via Flickr.

Turban. By mukerjichinmoy via Flickr.

In Malacca, kueh bluder (pronounced blue-der) belonged to the Dutch-Eurasians but was enjoyed by many others. The Portuguese-Eurasians baked and ate the cake too, while the Peranakans learned from their Eurasian neighbours and passed it down along with their own recipes. After these communities moved south to Singapore in the late 1800s, blueder became one of the many mixed-heritage flavours in the multi-racial colony. But Singapore’s relentless development soon caught up with the cake, even before coronary heart disease could. The absence of a key ingredient, after the authorities decided its people didn’t need, forever changed bluder in Singapore.

Toddy is an alcoholic drink associated with the Tamils in Malaya, but it is also key to the making of kueh bluder and breudher. The drink became an ingredient probably during the Dutch rule in Ceylon between the 1600s and 1700s. Dutch ring cakes till today make no use of toddy, but the drink has long been a tipple for the common man in Ceylon, and is even used to leaven a local pancake there called kallappam. This method became central to the making of breudher in Sri Lanka and kueh bluder in Malacca, both born from the marriages of the colonists and their subjects in the respective cities. Today in Malacca, where there’s easy access to toddy, the Dutch-Eurasians taste the same bluder their grandmothers ate. But not for those who have moved south to Singapore.

Toddy comes from the sweet sap of coconut flower that blossoms in a tropical climate. The sap is “mild as mother’s milk” at first, but ferments into “a man’s drink” in the sun. It is the intoxicating beverage that has been tightly controlled in Singapore. In 1979, a dispute between the only remaining toddy contractor and his tappers spiralled out of proportion into a nationwide ban. Ever since the last toddy shops closed, people have not been able to buy the beverage in Singapore. Nor can kueh blueder be made with toddy again.

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Published in The Straits Times in 1975.

Like kueh bluder, Singapore’s toddy story developed with colonialism. It was introduced by the British after they founded Singapore, just a few years following Ceylon’s surrender to the colonist. The British came to know of Ceylon’s toddy like the Dutch before them, but they did not acquire a taste for it. Instead, toddy-drinking became a unique habit of the Tamil coolies in Singapore’s rubber estates. Toddy shops were typically located near the coolie’s living quarters and they multiplied as the rubber industry thrived. In the 1930s, when rubber plantations occupied 40% of Singapore’s land area, there were over 30 government toddy shops and many more run by the estates.

In the early 1900s, toddy was a contentious subject frequently debated among the European planters. Those who called for toddy shops to close believed it would put an end to the unruly behaviours problematic for the estate managers. Many complained about “drunken coolies on the road” and their consequential deaths from pneumonia. Some coolies also fell ill from tampered toddy, prepared by toddy shop licensees pushing for more profits. These planters were not so much concerned about the coolies’ well being as they were about their investments in these human assets.

The proponents of toddy had similar practical interests but a different approach. They argued the need to ensure good quality toddy so that the coolies would not turn to more potent and harmful illicit alcohols. The estate-run toddy shops provided legitimate yet more affordable toddy that also helped discourage the workers from stealing rubber to barter for booze.

The pro-toddy arguments prevailed but the toddy shops would be strictly regulated to contain both toddy drinking and the drinkers. While whisky and brandy were sold at any bar or provision stall, toddy was only available at toddy shops, limiting the public spaces where Tamil coolies could enjoy this affordable pleasure. All toddy shops were licensed by the colonial government, as were the coconut plantations producing the alcohol. To contain public disturbance should it occur, patrons were required to consume within the toddy shops. Women and children, assumed to be most susceptible to disobedience through fault of their own or others, were not allowed in these premises.

As Singapore developed economically in the postwar period, toddy demand declined alongside the diminishing need for coolies. This trend continued post independence. Only four toddy shops remained in the 1970s and together they catered to a daily crowd of mere 300. The disappearing estates was a setback for the toddy industry, but the wider public—of growing affluence—wasn’t embracing the stigmatised beverage either. Even though the beverage hardly posed the same risk to society, tough regulations were inherited from the British and imposed by the new government of Singapore.

Toddy was prohibited at a time when consumption was at its minimum. The authorities cited many reasons, such as black-marketeering and adulterations, but these problems existed since colonial times. What stood out as new was their plan for urban renewal, and their laments about the lack of a suitable replacement site. In 1979, when the sole remaining toddy contractor ran into trouble with his tappers, the authorities found their chance to solve their problems all at once. Acting upon the recommendations of the National Wage Council, the tappers demanded a pay raise, but the contractor did not oblige. The Customs Department, which regulated toddy productions and sales in Singapore, turned down the contractor’s request to raise the tender price of toddy, which he had hoped to use to finance the demanded raise. By the end of the year, most of the tappers resigned. Receiving no toddy from the contractor, the Customs Department revoked his license. That was the last time the government issued a toddy license, and the drink was never again produced or sold in Singapore.

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A toddy shop before it shut down in 1975.

Without toddy, any kueh bluder produced in Singapore is missing a chapter of history. Its combination of a South Asian tipple and a Dutch ring cake manifests a cultural exchange between the coloniser and the colonised. The cake also testifies to the resilience of indigenous ways in the face of western domination—although this hinges on the tolerance of the latter. In Singapore, toddy survived the British rule because it was allowed to. The colonisers despised the beverage, but they also saw its benefits to the lucrative rubber industry. Toddy was likewise subject to the ambition of the post-independence government. Since it was deemed unfit for Singapore’s modern, high-value economy, its entire industry was rooted out, and the traditions around it had to be reimagined.

While toddy was becoming out of reach, bluder was also grappling with Singapore’s new economic reality. The cake typically took two days to bake. On top of the hassle to acquire toddy, the batter comprising egg yolks, flour and butter had to be fermented overnight in an earthen jar. Sometimes a blanket was used to keep it warm and cozy for toddy yeast to grow. Baking must wait till the following day after the batter had risen. When Singapore industrialised in the 1970s, more married women went to work and few had the time or patience for any laborious cooking. Even when toddy was still available, bluder was disappearing from homes, which were becoming sites for consumption rather than production.

But changing social mores is nothing like a toddy ban that gives the Eurasians no choice to perform their tradition. For people who produce bluder to express and preserve their underrepresented identity, the end of Singapore’s toddy industry may feel too personal.

That doesn’t mean that a culture completely disappeared. It evolved, instead, to adapt to changing circumstances, but still telling the stories of surrounding people and places. Just as toddy is important to witness bluder’s historical passage from the Netherlands to Ceylon, its absence traces the ensuing voyage down south and contextualises the cake within Singapore’s politics, market and economy. When developing a bluder recipe for his cookbook NerdBaker, Christopher Tan responds to the lack of toddy in Singapore with a mixture of coconut water and instant yeast. This recipe pays homage to the cake’s heritage, but also hints at Singapore’s pragmatism: what is incompatible with the state’s master plans is not important for anything else. The new bluder has an unsentimental touch, and it is Singaporean no doubt.

This story is based on my research for a Channel 5 programme about vanishing foods. Not all of my work made it into the half an hour episode (below), especially the parts that I find interesting. This is for the other geeks out there.

Tan, Christopher. Nerdbaker, pp. 53-56.
Interview with John Conceicao, a local Dutch Eurasian

Interview with Mary Gomez, a local Eurasian cook

Interview with the Singapore Malayalee Association

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