You might have sampled roasted chestnuts outside of Singapore, perhaps across the causeway in Malaysia or in nearby Thailand. But did you know that people all over the world enjoy roasted chestnuts as a streetside snack?
In places as faraway as Italy, chestnuts are roasted and sold to passerbys in little brown bags or paper cones. Outside of Europe, the snack is also popular in Korea, China and Turkey. Once, it was also a popular snack in the United States, before a blight struck and caused the American chestnut tree to nearly go extinct.
Back in the old days, chestnuts roasting over a charcoal-powered fire was the smell of Christmas to Americans. Some in Korea roasted their chestnuts in a pan in a shallow pool of water. Here in Singapore, the chestnuts are tossed in a wok and roasted along with pebbles and sugar.
Described as slightly sweet and nutty and a cross beyond a yam and a cashew nut, it’s a treat that’s much beloved by the older generation.
You may have glimpsed a cart or two selling gao lak, as it known in Hokkien, but they are getting increasingly fewer and far between. Today there are only a few left. The most well-known and long-lived is Bugis 102 Roasted Chestnuts, located in Chinatown. Its sole proprietor, Ah Orh, has been selling chestnuts for four decades.
Many chestnut roasters cut into their chestnuts to prevent the chestnuts from exploding during the roasting process. But Ah Orh says it affects the taste of the chestnut. Instead, he roasts his chestnuts with black pebbles and a bit of sugar at around 250 – 300 degrees celsius. He believes the sugar helps to prevent any chestnuts from splitting and also enhances the flavour of the dish.
Ah Orh believes that his is a dying trade.
He says the rising cost of rent, raw materials and import fees are all barriers to entry. It’s also hard work, stirring the chestnuts as they are roasting but at least now it is mechanized. Back then, taking a break from the stirring would mean a chance of burnt chestnuts. Now, Ah Orh can take a more laid-back approach to tending to his chestnuts, although he hardly ever takes a holiday. He works 360 days a year.
Have you seen a streetside chestnut hawker? What other dying Singaporean trades can you think of?