SINGAPORE — On a sweltering afternoon outside Peace Centre, it was the start of another workday for Amirthaalangaram Moorthy, 53. Then his eyes lit up at the sight of a familiar face: longtime customer Sally Thio, 55.
Thio had come all the way from her home in Boon Lay to buy a few $1.20 packets of kacang puteh (white beans in Malay), which came wrapped in the ubiquitous thin paper cones. She told Yahoo News Singapore that she has been frequenting Moorthy's stand for more than a decade.
“I used to buy from his father’s stall at Cathay until now. I have become a grandmother," said Thio, who remembers Nagappan Arumugam as a "very good man". She added, "(Moorthy's) kacang puteh is very nice and very fresh."
In all likelihood, Moorthy is now the last of his kind. "Father old already, he cannot do, I do. Must carry on. Nobody is selling, only one kacang puteh (seller) now," said the father of two, who took over the business in 2014.
Moorthy hails from a long line of kacang puteh sellers who came to Singapore from his village in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. In the 1950s and 1960s, Indian immigrants became street vendors who sold kacang puteh, wrapped in thin paper cones made from pages ripped out of old newspapers, magazines and school exercise books, reported The Straits Times.
Before popcorn came along, kacang puteh was the snack of choice for movie-goers. It consists of a mixture of various nuts, beans and lentils.
Retiree Puvaneswari Kannusamy, 67, has fond memories of eating the snack while watching Tamil movies with her family in the 1960s. They frequented now defunct cinemas like Ciros Theatre in Telok Blangah, and Theatre Royal and Diamond Theatre in North Bridge Road.
"Nowadays there are so many things you can buy at the cinema, but in those days, we only had kacang puteh. There was a long queue as there were no other snacks," said the mother of two, adding that steamed chickpeas were especially popular among moviegoers.
"It’s really nice to munch and eat. There is nothing like kacang puteh."
The last of the kacang puteh men
Moorthy's stall has a long and storied history. It was started by his grandfather more than 50 years ago around the kampungs of Hougang, when a pack of kacang puteh was just five cents. Then it was passed on to his father, who plied his trade at various locations such as the old Hoover cinema in Balestier and The Cathay before moving to the stand's present location along Sophia Road in 1997.
With Arumugam now 78 and retired in Tamil Nadu, it has fallen to Moorthy to carry on the family tradition. Assisted by his wife Vasantha, in her late 50s, Moorthy rises at 7am each day to prepare items such as roasted almonds, steamed chickpeas and the ever-present murukku.
Then Moorthy cycles over from his home in Kallang Bahru to ply his trade from 1030am till 8 in the evening. Among the most popular items are sugared peanuts, cashew nuts and chickpeas. He buys his ingredients from a stall in Chinatown on a weekly basis.
"Business is very slow," said the permanent resident, who came to Singapore in 2004 and previously worked at Mustafa Centre. He was forced to shut down from April to July last year because of Singapore's partial lockdown. And while he reopened in August, the number of customers per day has gone down from a pre-pandemic high of 300 to around 200 on a good day.
Moorthy has also been unable to resume his catering business at corporate events and weddings due to ongoing safe management measures. "It is very difficult to cover (the $600) rent. Other places rental very high. (But) still can make money."
Customers whom Yahoo News Singapore spoke to were well aware of the rarity of Moorthy's stall. Xin Kun De, 60, who works in the service industry, has been frequenting the stall for two years. "When I was a child, we would buy kacang puteh all the time. Now, such stalls are very rare," he told Yahoo News Singapore in Mandarin.
"You can get it in the pasar malam, but the taste here is different, it’s more fragrant. In the pasar malam, it is sold in boxes or wrapped in plastic, and the flavour is not the same."
But how long will Moorthy carry on? He was unperturbed when Yahoo News Singapore posed the question. And there may yet be a fourth generation of kacang puteh sellers in his family.
"Nobody now selling, but still got customers. My son also can, no problem."
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