Wartime recipes: What people ate during WWII in Singapore

By Kevin HoEvents - 12 June 2013 5:49 PM | Updated 14 June 2013

Wartime recipes: What people ate during WWII in Singapore

Whether it be a recollection of the horrible death or near-death experience of a family relation during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore, or the social studies and history lessons from school, we have all heard the stories that emerged from World War II Singapore from 1942 to 1945.

Contrast that to Singapore today, where there is a hawker centre, a sushi joint, or some Michelin-starred restaurant in our neighbourhoods. Singapore residents are spoilt for choice where food is concerned.

There is nothing like hearing it from a survivor of the Japanese Occupation, to remind ourselves of the excesses we have today that sometimes border on the obscene. (They do not call it food pornography for nothing.)

In painstaking detail, these wartime stories have been uncovered by filmmaker couple Gozde and Russel Zehnder, who runs a production house in Singapore.

The six-part documentary series titled ‘Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes’, is commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore.

The ambitious project – five years in the making – paints a fresh perspective on the sufferings endured by the wartime survivors.

wartime survivors
The extent of hunger

Rather than focusing on familiar topics such as the fears of the Kempeitai (Japanese military police force) and horror stories on the building of the Death Railway, the enlightening documentary focuses on the most basic yet essential tenet of survival – food.

Across six episodes, the producers answer questions such as how the survivors fill their bellies given limited resources, what they were eating and why food was scarce.

Through in-depth interviews and thorough investigation, the documentary pieces together a touching narrative that is as profoundly informative as it is frightening.

The twist to ‘Wartime Recipes’ is that it is more than just a dive into history.

In charmingly pieced segments known as the ‘wartime kitchen’, the documentary ushers the audience back to the present by showing them how to prepare wartime meals in the kitchen today.

The recipes are not as bland as you may suspect, with dishes such as savoury papaya soup, sotong with kiam chye (squid with pickled vegetable), and sweet potatoes with kangkong (water spinach).

Yes, what would surprise you is that survivors managed to remain creative in the kitchen against all odds, and perhaps, they even inspired the dishes that you may find in restaurants today.

“A lot of us watch documentaries about war and they’re always about battles and machines. Rarely do we get to see a side of war about what happens at homes and what they did to survive,” explained filmmaker Russel Zehnder, whose aunt personally went through these tough years as a child.

Wartime Photographs
Remembering the Past

“These are interviews of really loving people who somehow still manage to keep their smiles, even when they’re talking about these brutal times,”said Zehnder’s wife Gozde.

The documentary ‘Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes’ really is a story of hope. It shows the resilience of people, that when their lives are thrown into disarray by unanticipated war, they still managed to pick up the pieces. Every dish, ingeniously created or humbly prepared, became more than just sustenance; it became a celebration that kept spirits high and made life feel just a little brighter.

‘Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes’ DVD is distributed by Objectif Films and is available at Objectifs, Kinokuniya, New Majestic Hotel and the Museum Label stores at $20.