Warming Ties with Barbecue Pits

A barbecue pit at East Coast Park.

A barbecue pit made entirely of concrete.

They reside in most condominiums as well as public housing estates. They are also expected at chalets, campsites and beach parks. Barbecue pits are everywhere in Singapore. As more than 80 per cent of the country’s resident population live in high-rise flats, this implement is more often a shared facility than a personal backyard grill.

Barbecue became a popular past-time in Singapore between the 1970s and 80s, reflected by the many stories about this form of cooking published in the local English-language newspapers. They gave advice on meat marinades, specifications of low-calorie cuts, and preached the gospel of barbecue fish: the importance of firm scales —“to seal in the juices”— and the minimum layers of banana leaves (five) to make a wrap (Lee 5; “How to Make” 16; “Calorie Scale” 25). When the fees for barbecue pits at East Coast Park increased by $1 in 1985, it made the news too (“Barbecue Fees Up” 13).

The proliferation of barbecue pits in residential and recreational spaces during this period coincided with the rise of Singapore’s economy. As the people’s affluence grew, they demanded more recreation options. Barbecue pits were amenities offered as part of new parks built across the country (Fung and Ng 1). The biggest project in the 1970s was East Coast Park, which was constructed on a newly reclaimed coast and boasted a 9km cycling track and many barbecue pits along the shoreline. Shortly after, in 1981, the Singapore Institute of Parks & Recreations, reported that barbecue was “the most popular past-time in Singapore, with the young revellers staying on the beach throughout the night” (20).

Barbecue pits at East Coast Park.

Barbecue pits at East Coast Park.

Besides parks, barbecue pits also increased in numbers with rise of chalets. Many holiday bungalows, such as the NTUC Pasir Ris Resort, were built between the 1970s and 80s to provide amenities for the Singaporean workers to “relax, recreate and recuperate for better performance” (Ong; Ng 23; “Company Hideaways” 1). The barbecue pit was a standard feature at these chalets. Like those at the beach parks, these barbecue pits were usually made of concrete to withstand the weather, and consisted of a lower tier, where the charcoal was placed, and a removable grill cover. It was popular with the renters who usually invited extended families and friends over for a barbecue party (Wong 3). During the holiday seasons, almost every bungalow unit greeted the breezy dusk with plumes of charcoal smoke (Loh 8).

Condominium dwellers were among the firsts to enjoy the convenience of a barbecue pit just outside their doors. This form of housing was introduced in the 1970s to provide the new middle class an alternative to public housing. The barbecue pit was among the amenities provided to emulate resort living, and it became such a hit that it was soon considered “the usual” facility as compared to the pool-side snack counter and pub that were introduced in the 1980s (Ong 1). The Housing Development Board (HDB) also introduced barbecue pits but to warm up community ties. This was implemented alongside pavilions and amphitheaters as part of the Main Upgrading Programme that ran from 1991 to 2007 to rejuvenate older precincts and encourage the residents to socialise (Lim; Sim).

Singaporeans’ eager embrace of the barbecue pits, be it within the estates or at chalets, is not in the least bit surprising. The country’s tropical weather is conducive for outdoor cooking all year round, and this method of cooking over an open fire is familiar to this nation of satay and bak kwa lovers — although rarely performed in apartment homes. Barbecue is also easy to learn. It requires little preparation and barely any skill to turn over chicken wings or hotdogs on a grill. Even if one accidentally charred the food, there are plenty of people who would actually savour it . Since anyone can contribute at the barbecue pit, no single person would be burdened with cooking. This makes barbecue a desirable food option for big parties such as a class gatherings.

Although barbecuing is universal, the variety and tastes of barbecued food are specific to cultures. Unlike the Southerners in the United States who tend to cook a whole rack of pork ribs or beef brisket, Singaporeans prefer single-portion cuts such as beef steaks and pork chops, as well as small bites including chicken wings, hotdogs and crabsticks. While a classic Korean soy sauce marinade for barbecue includes pear and sugar for sweetness, a Singaporean soy sauce rendition typically combines with oyster sauce, honey or both. Barbecue prawns or fish, on the other hand, is incomplete without the pungent sambal belacan and a squeeze of calamansi.

Over the years, Singaporeans have developed an appetite for foreign barbecue flavours such as Lousiana’s Cajun and the Japanese teriyaki (EZBBQ; BBQ Wholesale Centre). Today’s easy access to barbecue caterers and pre-marinated meats at major supermarkets help make these options more widely available, and sustain the popularity of a barbecue party.


Works Cited

“How to Make Your Barbecue the Hit It Should Be.” The Straits Times, 31 Dec 1970, p.16.
Lee, Geok Boi. “For Twice the Flavour, Grill Fish Over an Open Fire.” The Straits Times, 27 Jul 1986, p.5.
“Calorie Scale for your BBQ.” New Paper, 31 Aug 1988, p.25.
“Barbecue Fees Up.” The Straits Times, 18 May, 1985, p.13.
Fung, Otto, and Ng, Siew Yin, editors. Recreation and the Community: Papers of the 1st Regional Congress on Parks and Recreation, Singapore, 10-13 July 1981, Republic of Singapore.
Ong, Teng Cheong. Donation Dinner Jointly Organised By the NTUC and the Singapore Labour Foundation to Raise Funds for the Pasir Ris Resort Project, 15 Oct 1984, Mandarin Hotel, Singapore. Speech.
“Company Hideaways.” The Straits Times, 27 May 1984, p.1.
Wong, Ai Kwei. “Get the Company Chalet and Let’s Have a Party.” The Straits Times, 27 May 1984, p.3.
Ng, Josephine. “ClubNTUC.” The Straits Tines, 28 Jul 1988, p.23.
Loh, Tuan Lee. “Booked to the Last Resort.” The Straits Times, 3 Nov 1988, p.8.
Ong, Paul. “Resort Living as a Way of Life.” The Straits Times, 1 Dec 1985, p.1.
Lim, Hng Kiang. Annual Dinner of the Singapore Institute of Architects, 19 Apr 1996, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore. Speech.
Sim, Cheryl. “Estate Renewal Strategy.” Singapore Infopedia, 10 Nov 2014, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2014-11-10_113032.html.
EZBBQ. www.ezbbq.com.sg/. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
BBQ Wholesale Centre. www.bbqwholesale.com/. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.

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