Ice kachang and ice ball
Ice kachang and ice ball are desserts made from shaved ice and have existed as street food in Singapore from as early as the 20th century. Ice kachang (Malay for “nut” or “bean”) contains jellies, red beans and attap chee (seeds of the nipah palm), covered with a mound of shaved ice that is doused with colourful syrups and evaporated milk, and topped with creamed corn.1 The ice ball is also drenched in different coloured syrups and contains fillings similar to ice kachang.2 While the ice kachang remains a popular local dessert today, the ice ball has disappeared from the landscape, because of changes in standards of food hygiene and eating habits.
Shaved-ice desserts and cooled sweetened drinks have existed for centuries and were largely consumed by the upper classes across different cultures in Asia and Europe.3 It was not until the mid-1800s that frozen treats such as sherbets and ice cream became more accessible to the wider population.4
In Singapore, street vendors began using shaved ice in various refreshments, as manufactured ice became cheaper to obtain in the early 20th century. An early version of a shaved-ice dessert, which resembles modern-day ice kachang, was described to comprise shaved ice paired with syrups, soaked seeds and seaweed jelly.5 The vendor would scrape a block of ayer batu (Malay for “ice”) against an inverted carpenter’s plane to create the ice shavings.6
Another popular shaved-ice dessert using similar ingredients was the ice ball. A favourite among children from as early as the 1920s, the ice ball, as its name suggests, was made of shaved ice moulded into the shape of a ball. Like the ice kachang, the ice ball was drizzled with syrups of different flavours.7 Red bean paste, jellies or attap chee could be added as fillings too.8
Ice kachang and ice balls, along with iced drinks, were typically to be sold by the same street vendor, as in the case of P. Maidin, the “ayer batu man” who plied his trade around the schools of the Bras Basah area for 34 years until his retirement in 1952.9 Ice kachang was reportedly sold at 20 cents a plate in 1948, while ice balls were sold at 5 to 10 cents, depending on the size.10 In the 1950s to 1960s, it was common for the “ice ball man” as well as other food vendors to come to the neighbourhood.11 Ice balls were also sold at Chinese street theatre (wayang) performances.
To shave the ice, the vendor would first clamp a block of ice on the base plate of a manual ice-shaving machine.12 When the machine handle was turned, the gears rotated the base plate horizontally, and in turn, the steel blade attached to it shaved the ice block. The ice shavings would then collect below the base plate.13 The vendor would shape the shavings into an ice ball using his bare hands, and make a depression in the ice ball with an index finger to make space for the fillings. Customers could request for specific coloured syrups.14 To save money, children would sometimes request the vendor to halve the ice ball for sharing. They would hold the ice ball in their hands and slurp it, leaving a sticky mess of melted ice and syrup and staining their clothes.15
While the ice ball has been thought to precede the ice kachang, the two desserts likely coexisted until hygiene issues brought an end to the sale of ice balls.16 Like other hawker foods, ice balls were sold from push-carts on the streets where proper food storage equipment and access to clean water were lacking.17 Outbreaks of water-borne gastro-intestinal diseases like cholera and typhoid were particularly linked to the sale of foods that used contaminated water and ice, such as cold drinks and desserts, ice cream and cut fruits.18 The preparation and consumption of ice balls by hand compounded the risk of contagion.19
In the interests of public health, the government moved to regulate food hawkers in the 1960s and relocated them from the streets to purpose-built food centres over the 1970s and 1980s.20 In addition, hawkers were required to undergo training and certification on food hygiene, while consumers were urged to boycott dirty stalls.21 As expectations of food hygiene and hawker cleanliness changed, it became less viable to sell ice balls. Ice kachang, eaten with a spoon in a bowl, became more popular.22
Today, ice kachang continues to be a widely available and affordable dessert typically found at hawker centres and food courts. Two traditional types of ice kachang sold today are the peanut ice kachang, which comes with a topping of roasted ground peanuts, and gula melaka ice kachang, which only uses gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup instead of the colourful syrups.23 The range of toppings has also expanded to include durian puree, mango puree, chocolate syrup, ice cream and more.24
The ice ball has occasionally reappeared as a novelty item at nostalgia-themed eateries or events, such as the 2008 Singapore Food Festival.25 While the classic shape is retained, the ice ball is now served in a bowl, sometimes with an added plastic sheet, and eaten with a spoon.26
1. Christopher Leong, Singapore Hawker Food: What's in the Dish? (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2021), 85. (Call no. RSING 641.30095957 LEO)
2. Sylvia Tan, “Forgotten Foods That Tasted So Good,” Straits Times, 3 June 2012, 35; “Ice Ball – Straight from the Hands,” Straits Times, 18 December 2004, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Geoffrey Kevin Pakiam and Michael Yeo Chai Ming, Culinary Biographies: Charting Singapore’s History through Cooking and Consumption, NHB-HRG-024, Report, October 2020 (Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020), 25.
4. Pakiam and Yeo, Culinary Biographies, 26.
5. “Some Queer Trades,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 7 January 1909, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Pakiam and Yeo, Culinary Biographies, 27.
7. Pakiam and Yeo, Culinary Biographies, 27; Jamie Koh and Singapore Children’s Society, Singapore Childhood: Our Stories Then and Now (Singapore: World Scientific, 2012), 92. (Call no. RSING 305.23095957 KOH)
8. Koh and Singapore Children’s Society, Singapore Childhood, 92; Tan, “Forgotten Foods That Tasted So Good”; “Ice Ball — Straight from the Hands.”
9. “He Has Been Their Ayer Batu Man for 34 Years,” Straits Times, 20 April 1952, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Roy Ferroa, “S’pore Loves Ice,” Singapore Free Press, 5 October 1948, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Tan Kok Yang, From the Blue Windows: Recollections of Life in Queenstown, Singapore, in the 1960s and 1970s (Singapore: Ridge Books, 2013), 22. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN); Josephine Chia, Kampong Spirit - Gotong Royong: Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 19. (Call no. RSING 307.095957 CHI); Koh and Singapore Children’s Society, Singapore Childhood, 92.
12. Yeo Hong Eng, The Little Red Cliff: 1946–1963 (Singapore: Trafford, 2013), 245. (Call no. RSING 920 YEO)
13. Yeo, Little Red Cliff, 245–46.
14. Yeo, Little Red Cliff, 246.
15. Koh and Singapore Children’s Society, Singapore Childhood, 92.
16. Tan, From the Blue Windows, 22.
17. Lily Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food (Singapore: National Environment Agency, 2007), 25. (Call no. RSING 381.18095957 KON)
18. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 25; Judith Yong, “Typhoid Outbreak Traced to 'No Licence' Hawker,” Straits Times, 24 April 1965, 4; “Ministry Tracks Down a Typhoid Carrier,” Straits Times, 10 March 1971, 8; “Boycott Dirty Food Hawkers Call by Govt,” Straits Times, 9 March 1975, 6. (From NewspaperSG); Yeo, Little Red Cliff, 247.
19. Cheong Suk-Wai, The Sound of Memories: Recordings from the Oral History Centre, Singapore (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2019), 100. (Call no. RSING 959.57 CHE-[HIS])
20. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 29, 31.
21. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 43.
22. Tan, From the Blue Windows, 22; Yeo, Little Red Cliff, 247; Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 43–45.
23. Ruth Wan, Roger Hiew and Leslie Tay, There's No Carrot in Carrot Cake (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2010), 91. (Call no. RSING 641.30095957 WAN)
24. Wan, Hiew and Tay, No Carrot in Carrot Cake, 91.
25. Tanya Ong, “The Ice Ball Died in S'pore, Kinda Became Ice Kacang, & Is Sometimes Resurrected,” Mothership, 24 January 2018; Rebecca Lynne Tan, “Vintage Street Food,” Straits Times, 2 July 2008, 48 (From NewspaperSG); Corrie Tan, “Old Trades Make Brief Comeback,” Straits Times, 3 December 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG).
26. Ong, “Ice Ball Died in S'pore.”
Sylvia Tan, “Forgotten Foods & Mealtime Memories,” BiblioAsia 12, no. 2 (2016).
The information in this article is valid as of January 2022 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.