26 June 2006

The Ice Ball Man

The younger generation may not have any idea who an ice ball man was. (No, he was not an iceman with one ball missing. Nice try though.) The closest modern day equivalent of the ice ball is the ice kacang which is similar in form and substance, but not shape.

The ice ball was sold at 10 cents during the 1960s. I always patronised a corner stall located at the junction of Albert Street and Queen Street, only a stone's throw from where I lived. This vicinity had a permanent pasar malam (night market) during that time. The stall was operated by a lone Indian man who wore white all the time - turban, shirt and sarong. (Sorry that I didn't check out the colour of his underwear, if any.)

When you tell the man, 'Aneh (brother), ice ball satu (one)', he would shave the ice using one hand by moving a whole block of ice back and forth on top of a homemade wooden ice-shaver that looked like a stool. But don't you ever try sitting on the stool because it had a very sharp blade embedded in it:

A piece of folded towel was placed on top of the ice block for better grip and also to prevent his hand from getting too cold, I guess. His other bare hand would be cupped under the stool to catch the ice shavings. Plastic or rubber gloves were unheard of at that time. Halfway through, he would fill the centre of the ice shavings with 2 simple ingredients - sweet red beans and chin chow cubes. Then he would continue shaving (the ice, that is) to cover the ingredients. After that, he would shape the product with both bare hands into an almost perfect white ice ball. To put the finishing touches to this classic dessert, he would ladle on sugar syrup of 3 colours (red, green and brown) and then pour some Carnation milk straight out of a tiny hole punched in the top of the can, meanwhile always rotating the ice ball with the other hand to ensure that the milk 'went all around the globe'. I would invariably request him to potong (cut) the ice ball into 2 halves so that I could share the joy (and cost) of eating an ice ball with my neighbour's kid.

The best way to eat an ice ball is to eat it with your bare hands. You put the ball to your lips and suck hard. (I am sorry if you find my language a bit crude here.) When most of the syrup has been sucked out of the ball, you bite into the ice and eat the rest of the ball that way. You can finish the ball in 5-10 mins although you always try to make it lasts as long as possible. However, in Singapore's hot weather, 10 mins is about as long as it gets before the ball starts to melt.

Besides selling ice balls, the Indian man also sold cold drinks. He had a very special drink which was transparent and red in colour. It had some tiny fruit seeds that looked like frog eggs to me. (When you bite into the seeds, they crunch delightfully. I never see this fruit nowadays and I don't know what it is called. Maybe some of my readers can help me out?) By the way, I knew how to get the Indian man to give me some of this flavourful drink for free. This operation required military precision - armed with an empty enamelled mug, I waited for him to close the stall for the day, usually at around 11 pm. Just before he poured the leftover drink from his container into the nearby drain, I intervened and asked pitifully, 'Aneh, kasi sikit boleh? (Brother, can you spare me a bit?) Most times, I managed to get my free drink this way.

Photo credit: Credit goes out to the shameless author who is proud that he has the resourcefulness to take the above photos recently at Sentosa's Images of Singapore.

Amendment on 30 Jun 2006: I have since found out that the 'frog eggs' mentioned above did not come from a fruit but a plant called basil. Those were basil seeds. Please refer to this link on ice kacang and this link describing the basil seed. Here is a photo that shows the basil seeds in water:


Lam Chun See said...

Aiyah, how come city boys always kena ketok one. (Remember the spider and my friend Chuck's comment?) In our kampong, we only pay 5 cts per ball. Don't tell me you are that much younger than me and that prices have gone up. Or that rental in CBD is higher hor.

Some more in kampong, we have extra ingredients when a car drives past on the dirt road and throws up a cloud of dust

Victor said...

Chun See, it was so long ago that I couldn't remember whether it was 5 cents or 10 cents per ice ball. I think it was 10 cents because sharing a 5-cent ice ball with my neighbour's kid would mean that I ended up with 2-1/2 cents in change. I don't remember ever handling 1-cent coins, much less 1/2-cent coins. In any case, I was just following the pricing written on the paper signboard of the first photo (click on it and you can see what's written on the signboard in the bigger photo pop-up).

Of course, I have to agree that being born 4 years younger could also mean that inflation had caught up too.

Victor said...

Chun See, did Chuck comment on the spider? Or was it my kite post that you meant?

Of course, I have to agree that being born 4 years younger could also mean that one has a better memory, haha.

Anonymous said...

The other person who told me about eating ice balls is my parents, seriously.

Think the fruit you talked about (with the "frog eggs") is the "long zhu guo"? Not sure about its English name tho'.

Victor said...

Welcome back, Alex. Long Zhu Guo? Isn't that the Chinese name for the dragonfruit? No, I don't think that it was dragonfruit seeds in the drink.

fr said...

hahaha... enlightening yet funny post,
suck hard is not crude lah, i think they are rightly used here, don't think you can find better ones.

Anonymous said...

I remembered:

1. Ice ball also got 'refill" - meaning you can ask the man for more syrup after sucking all the red syrup. If you ask for rainbow colors + evaporated milk, that is considered as "extra", you pay 0.10 cents in 1960. "Normal" with 1 color syrup (usually red) is 0.05 cents.

2. You suck ice ball and play "Tikam Tikam" at the same time.

3. Best is to suck and eat kachang (from a folded paper) at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Thanks for your comments. =D
I am Singaporean...
what makes you think I'm a Myanmese?
anyway, nice entry.
Never eaten this thing in my whole life....

Victor said...

Aunaun, I discovered your blog while doing a Google search on "long zhu guo" which my friend Alex mentioned above. (Anyway there is no way to access that post of yours dated 13 Jun 2006 from your blogspot main page. How to do it ah? You disallow people to see your archives ah? I could only see that post when I clicked on the 'cache' hyperlink in Google search results.)

You're Singaporean? But your nick sounds so Myanmese leh. Have you heard of Aung San Suu Kyi who is always under house arrest?

At first, I thought you're an Ang Moh because of all the Ang Moh photos you use on your blog, hehe.

You've have never eaten an ice ball? Then you must be quite young. I think only people aged 40 and above would have eaten an ice ball. I could also tell that you're young (probably teenager) since you said that you're in school and also from the way you write - we old folks seldom use emoticons :D

Chris Sim said...

I remember the ice balls alright. There was this push-cart in Club Street where I grew in the 70s, manned by a couple selling drinks and ice-kacang, mostly served as ice balls. Can't remember how much they charged, but as I recall, not only were the cart swamped with kids, it was also swamped with lots of honey bees, all buzzing around the syrup. None of us got stung, which explained why we kids kept coming for more. Those were the days, Victor. A pity our kids would never get to savour what we 60/70sters went through. Thanks for the memories, pal.

Victor said...

Peter, my ice ball man never offered a refill of syrup nor did he had a two-tier pricing like what you've described. You must have patronised another ice ball man in another part of Singapore. By the way, I have found out what the 'frog eggs' were and have updated my post.

Anonymous said...

My "territory" was 9 3/4 miles Upper Bukit Timah Road; near the Boys Town English School. Over at Jalan Teck Whye, also next to a school, the prices were similar. Does it mean that being near a school, we got competitive pricing? Your ice-ball man was stationery or mobile?

Victor said...

Could be. But I think it was up to each and every ice ball man to set his own prices according to supply and demand, since they didn't have an association to control them.

My ice ball man was stationary. He stayed at the same spot throughout the night but his stall was on a cart with wheels, just like the one shown in the first photo.