Kuih Kapit – Love Letters to be Consumed Crisp and Fresh

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The melt-in-your-mouth kuih kapit is a huge favourite, and not just during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Legend has it that kuih kapit was once used by lovers to communicate covertly, hence its more poetic name, love letters.

Using a mixture of South-east Asian ingredients such as ground rice, eggs, coconut milk and sugar, kuih kapit was made by hand in the old days. Rice had to first be grounded using the cheo bo, before the batter is poured onto one side of a heated mould attached to a pair of clippers to be pressed together for excess batter to be removed. Traditionally, the mould would be placed over a charcoal fire for the kuih kapit to cook. The Hokkien word “chay” is used to describe the texture of the wafer: crispy but not too brittle.

An experienced Nyonya or Baba can handle up to eight pairs of moulds, with the help of a skilled assistant who would have to work very quickly to either roll or fold the kuih kapit before it hardens. The kuih kapit in Melaka and Singapore are commonly rolled, while the ones in Penang are typically folded. In certain parts of Indonesia, kuih kapit is also known as kue semprong because of its resemblance to a bamboo.

However, in recent years, it has become more convenient to make smaller quantities of kuih kapit using one or two kuih kapit moulds with gas fires on low heat, since the fire can then be easily controlled.

The Different Varieties of Kuih Kapit

The Indonesian variation of kuih kapit is the kue sapik. Sapik or sepik in Indonesian shares the same meaning as sepit in Malay – to pinch, squeeze or clamp; while kapit in Malay means to press together from both sides. These two words give a clue as to how kuih kapit is made.

The kuih kapit is also known as kuih belanda, meaning Dutch kuih in Malay – a clear indication of a Dutch origin as well. This version, however, is thinner and harder than the traditionally thicker Dutch waffles we are more familiar with.

The early Dutch moulds, Ijzerkoekjes, were made of cast iron; “ijzer” is iron in Dutch. These irons have much shallower grooves compared to Belgian or American waffle irons. The present kuih kapit moulds also have shallower grooves and are held much closer together, giving rise to a thinner waffle.

I find it very interesting that the Dutch have two separate waffle recipes: one for the flat unrolled knieperties, and another for the rolled rollechies. The knieperties are made using a dough mix of flour, sugar, egg, butter, water and cinnamon. A small round piece of dough is then placed in the middle of one of the moulds which is then pressed together to form a flat waffle.

Different kuih kapit moulds.

The rollechies are also made from a batter with similar ingredients, but the water is replaced by a larger quantity of milk. This recipe is similar to our kuih kapit recipe, which uses ground rice and coconut milk instead of wheat flour and dairy milk. The batter is then poured onto one of the heated moulds to be cooked over charcoal fire.

Like the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, the Dutch also serve their knieperties on New Year’s Eve to symbolise the complete unfolding of the past year, and the rollechies on New Year’s Day to represent the new as yet unfolded year ahead. The same waffle iron is used for both types of waffles, and must be robust enough to press the dough flat.

The Dutch waffle koekjesijzer, or iron cake, was probably adapted in Indonesia, Malaya and Sri Lanka to what we know today as the kuih kapit mould. However, I don’t think most of the round kuih kapit moulds used in Malaysia and Singapore today are sturdy enough.

Moulds

I have come across many kuih kapit moulds – round, square and even rectangular ones. Coming from Penang, I am more familiar with round-shaped moulds. I own a round copper mould, but I remember seeing kuih kapit moulds owned by my aunts which were made from brass. The kuih kapit moulds of the following generation were made from iron. The designs on each side of the moulds were manually stamped using dices on the iron.

Today, the round kuih kapit moulds found in Malaysia and Singapore are made of aluminium. I suspect they are now made by only a few companies in Malaysia; the older ones have a sole “S” stamped on the outside, while the newer ones are marked with a double “SS”. They are nominally 4½ inches diameter, but is actually slightly smaller.

Kuih kapit mould designs.

Designs

I am also inclined to think that the square- and rectangular-shaped moulds mainly come from Indonesia; varying in size up to the width of 30cm! They also appear to be more durable – I suspect they were originally made from iron, while higher quality ones were made of brass – and are similar to the antique iron moulds I have seen on my visits to the museums in the Netherlands. The designs on these Indonesian iron moulds and on the antique iron ones from Holland are also similar in style. There are also round kuih kapit moulds in Indonesia.

A lot of effort has gone into crafting the designs found on kuih kapit moulds. Unfortunately, I don’t think the designs are appreciated since the kuih kapit are consumed much faster than they are made! I must admit I am guilty of this myself. It is a pity because there are many interesting symbols and designs used, some of which are abstracts representing animals, fish, birds, parts of plants and Chinese characters, either stamped or cast on each pair of the moulds.

The designs of the groove in the round moulds have adapted to the many materials used; the very early ones were probably made from copper more than from iron. Later moulds were made from brass, and the more recent ones from aluminium.

The older round iron moulds feature a variety of fish, lobster, birds and floral designs. These designs were individually stamped on the iron moulds by the craftsmen who made them. Some of these designs are quite abstract, which is not surprising given that the early iron moulds were made using a limited number of dices with simple shapes. The more recent round brass and aluminium moulds are mass produced, but the designs still follow traditional practices. On the Indonesian kue sapit moulds, however, the designs are more geometric.

The author welcomes contributions from anyone who has new and interesting information about kuih kapit, or has any comments about the article. This article used materials from the author’s book, Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils, and Recipes, published by Landmark Books.

Dr Ong Jin Teong is an engineering and food consultant. He conducts cooking classes, does research on Nyonya and heritage cuisine, and hosts the occasional supper club. He has published two award-winning books: Penang Heritage Food – Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook and Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils and Recipes.



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