New book offers a glimpse of illegal prison cooking culture in the 70s and 80s

SINGAPORE – It was the 1970s. As evening fell on prisons and drug rehabilitation centres across Singapore, inmates set to work striking carefully saved razor blades against bits of smuggled flint to light fires in their cells.

In the two-hour window between 7pm and lights-out at 9pm, when no guard patrols were scheduled, the men would repurpose mugs and chamber pots to cook themselves hot suppers out of meagre ingredients like canned food, tau kwa (tofu squares) and water scooped from the toilet bowl.

The little-known practice of illegal prison cooking or “masak”, which means to cook in Malay, is documented in a book published late last year, When Cooking Was A Crime: Masak In The Singapore Prisons, 1970s-1980s.

Based on the experiences of eight former inmates interviewed by food writer and author Sheere Ng, 34, the book describes the lengths to which inmates would go to regain some sense of autonomy behind bars, or simply to break the monotony of prison life.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the former Makansutra food-guide editor said she was interested in writing about prison food back in 2011. She approached Mr Benny Se Teo, a chef and former drug offender who founded social enterprise restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs, which hires ex-offenders.

Said Ms Ng: “I told him I was interested to find out about prison food and he said: ‘I’ll tell you something even better. I’ll tell you about masak.’

“He asked me to come to his restaurant and we spoke for two hours, but at the time, it was very hard to grasp because there was a lot of jargon and prison parlance.”

Intrigued by the practice, Ms Ng contacted other former inmates and a former drug rehabilitation centre superintendent through church networks and personal connections.

The former inmates revealed how almost anything could be used as cooking fuel for masak, from scraps of fabric and plastic bags to makeshift candles formed from melted pieces of plastic food trays stolen during official meal times.

Ingredients could be obtained from fellow inmates who served as cooks in the prison kitchens, bought with prison wages at the commissary, or simply portions of food from lunch or dinner set aside for later use.

With a healthy serving of creativity and a dash of imagination, dishes like “laksa”, “ban mian” and even “bubur cha cha” dessert could be recreated in the cell.

The prison versions of these local favourites barely resembled their original forms, but they were a comforting escape for the inmates, especially compared to their provided meals, which were invariably bland, repetitive and always served cold, said Ms Ng.

Special occasions like a fellow inmate’s 21st birthday were celebrated with cakes made from melted chocolate bars, margarine and crushed soda biscuits. PHOTO: DON WONG

“You close your eyes, you eat that warm food, and you feel as if you’re not in prison, you’re in Singapore,” she added, noting that “Singapore” meant the world outside the prison walls.

Ms Ng said she decided to publish her findings as a book to show different sides of the inmates, who are often seen merely as lawbreakers.

She also wanted to show how food can take on different meanings in Singapore – as punishment, freedom, control or play – beyond its more common associations with national identity or familial ties.

“When you’re deprived, you would be surprised how far you would go, or how creative you could be with the things that are available, just to make your life a little bit more pleasant,” she said.

One common method of sustaining a flame for cooking was to make a candle out of plastic food trays stolen during mealtimes. PHOTO: DON WONG

Ms Ng collaborated with a friend of her husband’s, freelance photojournalist Don Wong, whose photographs of the dishes described by the inmates are featured in the book.

Mr Wong recreated the dishes in his home during the circuit breaker period last year.

The book was published by writing studio In Plain Words run by Ms Ng and her husband Justin Zhuang. It is available at the studio’s website and Kinokuniya book store.

Prison masak recipes

“Peanut butter”

• Packet peanuts

• Sugar

• Margarine


• Chocolate bar

• Margarine


• Cooked rice

• Luncheon milk

• Fried vegetables

• Water from the toilet bowl

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• Tau kwa

• Fried noodles

• Canned hae bee hiam

• Reconstituted milk

“Ban Mian”

• Fried noodles

• Fried vegetables

• Cut chillies

• Canned ikan bilis

• Canned hae bee hiam

• Water from the toilet bowl

“Bubur Cha Cha”

• Green bean soup

• Kaya

• Sugar

Birthday cake

• Chocolate bar

• Margarine

• Soda biscuits

• Cake mould made from magazine covers and rice glue

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