Food writer and cooking instructor Christopher Tan chats about Singapore’s love for kueh and his book
Making kueh with my grandma is one of my memories I will always treasure. Pineapple tarts and other snacks, puddings, desserts and cakes from our Eurasian heritage fill evey occasion from the mundane to the lavish.
Kueh means cake in Malay, but covers a wide spectrum of both sweet and savoury eatables. Every community in Singapore loves kueh – and those like the Eurasians, Malay, Chinese and Peranakan share similar kueh recipes that. Tea time, brunch, snack time, festival – any time is a wonderful excuse to get together for tea and kueh and chitchat.
Made in all colours, sizes and shapes, kueh reveals a lot about a culture and its traditions because there is so much symbolism behind it. Red chewy ang ku kueh filled with mung bean paste resembles a red tortoise for good luck. Pineapple tarts have a topping of sweet, cooked pineapple that looks like a gold nugget for good fortune and prosperity – popular during Chinese New Year.
Christopher Tan’s cookbook The Way of Kueh is a wonderful adventure into Singapore’s kuehs and kueh culture, which is such a meaningful part of our national food heritage.
Traversing cultures, cuisines and culinary history, it showcases favourite kuehs from Singapore’s Malay, Chinese, Peranakan and Eurasian communities.
Much more than just a comprehensive treasure trove of recipes, The Way of Kueh also comprises short but insightful essays that touch on histories, regional connections and colonial influences, and interviews with kueh artisans who shed light on their craft and personal experiences.
With this book, Christopher hopes to interest and reacquaint Singaporeans with time-honoured local kueh culture, and more importantly, to inspire and encourage everyone to make and enjoy kueh together, so as to preserve and progress this unique cornerstone of Singapore’s food heritage.
Christopher Tan is a true blue Peranakan. The 47-year-old has penned numerous cookbooks and award-winning stories, and teaches cooking, baking and kueh classes regularly at The Kitchen Society in Singapore.
The Way of the Kueh cookbook is published by Epigram and retails for S$51 at major bookstores, and is also available online
A Chat with Christopher Tan
Kueh possibly speaks more about a culture than the savoury food as it shows flair for design, symbolism, colour and form; and tells a little story. What top 3 Singapore kueh do you personally love?
Kueh absolutely is deeply embedded in culture and nested in layers of meaning, symbolism and aesthetic perspectives. It was crucial for me to lay this out in the book, to show readers that recipes are in some ways the smallest part of it.
I feel uneasy singling out kuehs for special attention, as many people have asked me to do. My mission in writing The Way of Kueh was to help raise the status of all kuehs, so I wouldn’t want to imply that only a few of them are worth focusing on. Too much media space these days is devoted to lists of the best, the most decadent, the most worthy, and so on, and we forget about the humble, the everyday, the simple. Really, all kuehs enrich our lives in their own unique ways.
That said, see my answer to question 6.
If you could travel back in time to Singapore’s past and have a homecooked meal with lots of kueh, and chat with the cook about the food, which era would that be? Colonial Singapore? Japanese Wartime Singapore? Medieval Singapore? The New Independence 60s? 19th century Port Settlement Building years with new immigrants, and so forth.
That’s a brilliant question, and a hard choice! I would probably pick Singapore in the late 1930s / very early 1940s, before the spectre of war had started to loom and before technology would have changed traditional methods too much. One of the historical texts I studied in my research, a survey taken during this period of hawker food across the island, documented well over 200 different kuehs and snack items, and these were only the ones sold on the streets and in shops – the tally would have been larger had it included kuehs made in private homes. I would love to have been a fly on the wall back then…
Many traditional kueh recipes handed down from grandmothers and grandfathers are being lost because many young people do not have the patience for ‘long winded’ cooking. How do we get these young people interested and back into the kitchen?
A few observations:
– Kueh gets a bad rap for being labour-intensive and difficult, which only some kuehs may potentially deserve. There are plenty of kuehs which require patience but not special effort.
– I don’t want to overstate the phenomenon of younger folks having less patience. If one has time to make macarons, decorate complicated cakes, construct detailed bento boxes, or play online games for hours on end, then one certainly has sufficient reserves of patience for kueh-making. It’s more a question of where one’s preferences and priorities lie.
– The main issue, I feel, is that people may not feel strongly connected to their heritage because they were not fully exposed to it or intentionally ‘inducted’ into it by their elders or peers. As Aziza Ali said to me when I interviewed her for The Way of Kueh, if you don’t know it, how can you love it?
– Also, compared to the days when Singaporeans from different communities lived side-by-side in kampung environments – as Josephine Chia colourfully described to me when I interviewed her for the book – we now do not witness each other’s traditions and heritage as up-close-and-personally as we used to.
– So really, all of us need to be more proactive in explaining, sharing and passing on heritage to each other: within families, across and between all generational levels, and across and between communities.
What is your favourite kitchen tool?
My high-horsepower Indian mixer-grinder. I use it to make everything from smoothies to pandan juice to rempahs and curry powder.
You take your own food photographs for many of your books. Without being too technical, what is a key element in good food pictures?
There are many schools of food photography, each geared for its own purposes. For example, advertising food photography typically needs to convey a feel of absolute perfection, while cookbook photography these days seeks to evoke a more emotional response.
I prefer to take my own cookbook photographs because I firmly believe that – regardless of the exact aesthetic sought – if the photographer has a deep connection with the dish or ingredient being shot, this will result in a better photograph. If you love your subject, it will make the photograph better – perhaps in intangible, indescribable ways, but it will. Besides this, I generally like to give the dish or ingredient centre stage, without unnecessary props or busy backgrounds: with kuehs, their lines and colours are striking enough to command attention on their own.
Singapore is hoping for success in its UNESCO Hawker Culture bid. What hawker food do you miss most when you’re out of town?
Probably black chai tau kueh, with chwee kueh a close second.
How do you relax after a hard day at work?
With a good book and an early night.
What advice can you give a student who wants to be a good food writer like you?
You have to be interested in food, you have to be dedicated to learning and to developing a personal food philosophy and perspective, but these are not enough on their own to make you a food writer. Most of all, over and above and under everything else, you have to love the craft of writing. Only by caring about the words first, and understanding the subtleties and powers of language, can you then productively explain and portray food to your readers.
Rich and oily yet spongily sumptuous, this now-scarce kueh was once made by Malay and Peranakan cooks in Singapore. It remains an important food in Indonesia, with ceremonial and ritual significance
for many communities. Old recipes use only rice flour, coconut water and palm sugar, while many modern ones mix wheat and rice flours. Cucur has many cognates across the ASEAN region. For especially fine ‘sarang’ (nest-like tunnels) and crispy rims, I have borrowed two tweaks from Thai ‘kanom ju-jun’: a little glutinous rice flour, and mashed banana. Any Asian banana will do, preferably a wee bit under-ripe.
MAKES 13 TO 15 KUEHS
wet rice flour
140 g rice flour
15 g glutinous rice flour
120 g water
70 g coconut water
75 g caster sugar
75 g gula melaka, finely shaved
25 g mashed banana
½ tsp salt
oil for frying
1. Make wet rice flour: mix all ingredients together into a stiff dough, cover tightly, and chill for 16 to 24 hours.
2. Crumble wet rice flour into a blender, add all batter ingredients and pulse-blend just until sugars dissolve. Strain batter through a fine sieve, cover and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
3. Take a small but wide wok with a fully curved base—I use an Indian appam pan. Set it over medium heat and add oil to a depth of 1 cm, enough to barely immerse each kueh and form a 1 to 2 cm wide ‘moat’ around it.
4. When a dipped-in toothpick tip sizzles, ladle 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of batter into the centre of the oil. The pancake should bubble steadily around the edges, and puffy tunnels will form, creeping from its rim to its centre. After about 30 seconds, when only a 1 cm spot of batter in its centre remains wet, nudge the kueh with a spoon so it rotates a little in the pan, and start basting its surface with oil. Fry for about 90 seconds further, until the kueh’s centre puffs up and erupts with some bubbles. Flip kueh over and fry for a final 10 seconds, then transfer kueh to a rack to drain, tunnelled side down.
5. Fry all kuehs likewise, topping up oil when necessary. Let kuehs drain on the rack for 5 minutes, then blot with kitchen paper, and serve. They are best eaten warm, while their rims are still crisp.
• If the tunnels take under 30 seconds to reach within 1 cm of the kueh’s centre, the oil is too hot. If they take longer, it is not hot enough. Basting is essential to the kueh’s sombrero-like shape.
• For Baba-style kueh chuchor, use white sugar instead of gula melaka, and omit the banana.
• For the kueh cucur pandan also shown here, use white sugar instead of gula melaka, and instead of the coconut water, use 70 g pandan juice (blend 75 g water, 70 g pandan and 2 drops of alkaline water together until the pandan looks like grass clippings, squeeze out the juice, then strain through a fine sieve).