Sunday, February 15, 2009

The humble roasted chestnut - from London's Covent Garden to Singapore's Ang Mo Kio and streets of Melaka

There's this thing about having some hot piping chestnuts served freshly roasted on a wintry day in London. The aroma that is released after you finally managed to crack open a stubborn chestnut is always welcomed after a day's of shopping at Covent Garden.

I was frankly surprised to find the humble chestnuts being peddled along the streets of Europe in pretty much the manner back in Singapore and Malaysia.

There are some obvious differences in the way it is presented and sold though.


Back in Singapore, half a kilogram generally goes for S$5 (£2.30). In parts of Malaysia, one can get the equivalent for a mere RM8 (£1.54). In London, just eight to nine chestnuts go for £2 - £2.5. And yes, that's way more expensive.

Method of roasting

In Singapore and Malaysia, chestnut hawkers, though thin and wiry, invariably have muscular arms. They need that for tossing heated coal bits (or at least that's what I assume they are) and chestnuts mixture. In order not to burn the chestnuts, they would have to stir the mixture continuously.

Author's note: it should be coffee beans instead of coal bits (thanks to Dutchie for the clarification)
There is no such thing as Singapore Noodles

Over here in London, the peddlers tend to roast them over a simple flat pan and turn them over occasionally. Some even do that with their bare fingers. As a result of which, the chestnuts often turned out overcooked and sometimes burnt, which was quite a disappointment really.



When you are chestnut seller in Singapore and Malaysia, you do chestnuts and nothing else. Can't blame them really, one wouldn't have the time (or energy) for anything else if he has to stirred the coal-chestnuts mixture constantly.

In London, it's really an enterprise. The London chestnut peddler can serve soft drinks, mull wine or even caramelised nuts (as shown in the first picture).

Now, it does seem that the London chestnut seller having it easier, doesn't it?

If you enjoy this post, do consider stumble/digg/reddit it with one of those small tiny buttons below. Cheers!

Share/Bookmark Pin It



Cashmere said...

Haha! That's cool! I didn't know they have these in London.. :)

ket said...

hey I remember the AMK one! its just outside the Plaza department store (now half This Fashion!) and Kingston bakery (where they used to sell fabulous curry puffs) .. but I remember them being a little more high tech, there was a mechanism attached to the wok of hot coals and chestnuts stirring it constantly, saving the poor hawker's arms! that's what I think I remember anyway.

C K said...

Yep, not only in London but in many European cities as well. Besides chestnuts, they have potato wedges as well!

LOL, we must have been hanging out in the same area! But the one that I recall in Ang Mo Kio was stationed in the covered linkway to the bus-stop that serves 266 (just beside the MRT station).

Oh, now that you mention it, I do recall the metal contraption that is used to stir the coals.

I have always requested to have those 'fresh' ones and not pre-packed version.

Paul Baines said...

Lol, I've eaten hot chestnuts in London and yes they do burn them all the time. The only thing street vendors don't seem to burn are burgers in Trafalgar Square in the middle of the night. if you are waiting for a night bus there don't be tempted - I and my girlfriend both got food poisoning from one of these sellers as he hadn't cooked the meat properly. Anyway you won't get poisoned from hot chestnuts but you may as well eat burnt toast all day if you want to try them in London, the last time I tried some it was like munching on coal (which I haven't done) but have heard is popular with pregnant women :D

waitingkitty said...

Oh I love roasted chestnuts! They have them in HK the same way as Singapore and Malaysia! The peddler will sell pipping hot steamed sweet potatoes too which is even tastier. :)

BK said...

From reading your post, a thought comes into my mind suddenly. Would our way of preparing chestnut be more popular in London than their current method of preparing? :)

Anonymous said...

Hi! Good story. I stuck at your blog while browsing in LR.

Have a nice time.

kruel74 said...

Been following you through entrecard for quite sometimes but never commented but this chestnut in London really tug at me as I was in Melaka 2 days ago debating with my wife whether to buy it or not (we didn't as both don't really eat it). Using hands to stir? Must be a kung fu master

Anonymous said...

I love roasted chestnuts!

lunaticg said...

Cannot believe that someone sell this nuts in London.
See you around.

Martin in Bulgaria said...

Nice one. Fond memeories of hot chestnuts, the smell was intense, but the biggest memory was of a blistered mouth for days afterwards. Never had the patience to wait for them the cool down. Just out of curiouslity, how much does a small bag of these cost now?

SheR. said...

Hey CK.
We have that in Croatia too. I wrote an entire posts about the Autumn Chestnut craze over here. We get those roasted ones too...pretty similar to that in London.

But I only like Chinese Chestnuts in Bak Chang!!!! Oh yeah. the Chinese chestnuts are different from the European counterparts. Even from Croatian. So there you have it... Gao Lak. Mmmmm

Canucklehead said...

I actually remember picking up roasted chestnuts on the streets of Seoul - they were good. However, my absolute FAVE was the biys who sold the sweet potatoes! I have not had them as good since and since they were right ion the corner -- well, lets just say I think I single-handedly kept them in business!

Canucklehead said...

Damn! That will teach me for not reading the other comments first! Ah well, at least me and waitingkitty are in total agreement! CHEERS!

Dutchie said...

Chestnuts r roasted in coffee beans, guys, not coals !! It's the logical heat insulator which the mechanical tosser could spread evenly throughout the day. I'm amazed no one remembered the hot coffee bean flavour ;-o

I do get my bag of chestnuts in Chinatown. Usually abt 3kg to share among the 20 of us :-)

Like Sher, I also loved it in lotus wrapped rice or in rice dumplings.

I hv never seen raw chestnuts here in NL, otherwise I would find a way to roast it myself !

Btw, we do hv "horse chestnuts" in our neighbourhood which is inedible. Lots of newcomers made the mistake of picking up a big bag for consumption - haha ... yeah I made that mistake too, once.

C K said...

@Paul Baines,
Really? I've not tried the burgers but have always succumbed to the sausages in a buns - loads of onions and mustard to go!

It must the one of the pregnancy cravings for burnt chestnuts. Have you tried any of those caramelized nuts? They don't really taste as good as they smell, do they?

Funnily, I'm never a fan of sweet potatoes. My grandparents survive only on those for several months during the war, I guess that's why. It's in the genes. :)

But of course! Care to set up a franchise here? I'll be your front man tossing those coffee beans (thanks, Dutchie!) every now and then? Not a bad idea, really...

Hey, thanks for stopping by. Cheers!

lol, now they don't. The ones over here in London is basically a flat pan and only a handful of nuts are roasted at any one time.

So the peddlers basically flick each one around every now and then.

@Mei Teng,
Hey, welcome to the club. I prefer mine peeled for me though. :p

You bet. And in many other European cities as well!

Hey, I must say that your polymer note post was rather intriguing.

A small bag of around nine to ten pieces will cost around 2-2.5 quid. How much was it when you were in London?

HAHA, I used to scoop them out and munch on it each time I unwrap my dumplings. That's my favourite bit, other than the fatty meat of course. :)

Gao Lak!

haha, I see that we have another sweet potato lover here.

You know what? The steam sweet potatoes in Kyoto are really expensive. I got a good size one (just smaller than the size of my palm) for the equivalent of 6 quid a couple of years back!

HAHA, I almost fell off my chair when I saw your comment. Coffee beans they are! Will make the amendments in the post. Thanks! I thought that it's a bit weird to have 'coals' mixed with chestnuts.

Anyway, 3kg is a huge pack. But wouldn't they cool down even before you're halfway through them? Wouldn't taste half as good would they?

Horse chestnuts? How do they taste like? Bitter?

EastCoastLife said...

I love roasted chestnuts! I wonder if they cost more in London.

I find them expensive in Singapore. I have tried roasted chestnut in China, HK, Malaysia and Seoul! I must try when I go to the west. :)

Hoo Don said...

Your post has taken me back to my childhood and Christmas time. Chestnuts roasted over an open coal fire, I even preferred them a little burnt. Happy tasty memories. Sadly central heating might take quite a while to roast them. Thanks for the memory.

Dutchie said...

The "horse chestnuts" has an outer layer like a green rambutan. Once u peeled that, it looks just like a chestnut with the smooth brown shell. Yes, it has a bitter sticky juice which will put u off biting into it.

U sure take note of the "warmth" factor - haha. Well, we peeled the nuts in one go n my sis-in-law had the ingenius idea of re-heating it up in the microwave lor *grin* - smart dame or what ?

U know, chestnuts, like sunflower of melon seeds has the tendency to bring people together, u notice ? Or when someone comes to visit with a sack of durians from M'sia (yeah, cheaper there lah) .. then we call up the rest of the family to come round n share the joy. Most times the others will come with more food that they "tar pao" on the way. Oh man, just thinking abt that makes me really really homesick ! I'm chewing on some apple flavoured gummies to deflect such moments of void - arrghh !

Anonymous said...

Singapore is really a shopping paradise with Orchard road and the other retail strips. singapore shopping has really improved over the years, especially the great offers during the great singapore sale

::karinuslai:: said...

it shouldn't surprise anyone to find chestnuts sold in europe. after all the lyrics "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" didn't come from asia...

Jack from eyeflare travel tips said...

Sounds like I really should try these in Asia rather than London. They're tasty here, but you make it seem like it'd be so much better in Singapore.