“I’VE BEEN WITNESSING a detrimental culinary trend taking place in Singapore over the years; our kuehs are slowly being forgotten by the younger generation!” laments Christopher Tan, an award-winning food writer, cooking instructor, food photographer and author of The Way of Kueh: Savouring & Saving Singapore’s Heritage Desserts.
Kuehs are the Southeast Asian equivalent of the French petit fours, and are typically eaten during breakfast and teatime accompanied by a cup of hot tea or coffee. And in each bite are reminders of the region’s cultural diversity. “But food discourses shaped by the local media have detracted attention away from the art of home-cooking, affixing themselves instead on hawkers and restaurant chefs. This undermines the future of our culinary heritage,” says Tan.
“It is a strange phenomenon, especially in the age of social media. On the one hand, it has never been easier to record, store and disseminate information but paradoxically, we are more detached than ever. Gone are the days when neighbours and friends would gather to exchange recipes and cooking techniques. We are unconsciously divorcing ourselves from our heritage and identity.”
It was for this reason that Tan wrote The Way of Kueh to collect and catalogue the fading tradition of kueh-making. “The recipes found in old cookbooks are not always easy to follow. Their instructions are either brief or vague, or because the ingredients have been swapped for others. How is one to determine if two coconuts still weigh the same as they did 50 years ago, when palm cultivars, farming techniques and the climate have all changed since then?”
In the old days, the art of kueh-making tended to be hit-or-miss. Noting down on paper the ingredients and measurements used was unheard of, instead recipes were passed down orally or by practice. This made it difficult to pinpoint a kueh’s exact origin. However and happily, texts from the late 1800s and early 1900s suggest that the process of kueh-making has hardly changed.
The Fruit of Communal Effort
Making kueh is akin to hosting a Malay kenduri (feast), where the chores are as extensive as they are elaborate, and involve plenty of manpower. The activity also gave families, friends and the community an excuse to come together, especially for special and festive occasions.
A uniqueness of the nyonya kueh lies in its ability to transcend cultural barriers, “Take the pineapple tart for instance, they are baked by Malays for Hari Raya, by Eurasians for Christmas, by Peranakans for Chinese New Year, and by Chetti Melakan Peranakans for Deepavali – how wonderful it is that one kueh has such a broad role in so many joyous festivities,” says Tan in awe.
Christopher Tan during his book launch at the Mano Plus Select Store in February 2020.
The pineapple tart is also one kueh to have absorbed foreign elements it came into contact with. Native to Latin America, the fruit was brought over to Southeast Asia by the Spanish and Portuguese. To make its jam fragrant, Indonesian spices like cloves, star anise and cassia are used, while the crumbly, buttery pastry encasing the jam is of Dutch origin. In fact, the Indonesian name for kueh tart, “nastar” derives from the Dutch “ananas tart”, or pineapple tart.1
In the Melaka-style kueh tarts, the latticed-pastry decorating the top of the pineapple tart is inspired by Dutch fruit tarts, but replaced in Eurasian-style pineapple tarts with three-lobed pastry curls to symbolise the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
There is also considerable contiguity between the kuehs across Maritime Southeast Asia. One can find different versions of kueh wajek and kueh rose in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The first generation Peranakans were Chinese immigrants who took Southeast Asian women as wives, and their cuisine syncretised influences from southern Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Indian and colonial cooking.
This was likely how, for example, the Batak sesagun, known also as sagun-sagun or sargon, entered the Peranakan repertoire. The sweet is made with grated coconut, ground rice and egg. Other Peranakan kuehs, like kueh koo, are of Chinese origin but their recipes have been adapted to include Southeast Asian ingredients such as santan and pandan leaves.
“The Peranakan communities in Penang, Melaka, Singapore and even Phuket and Java have historically been linked by trade, migration and marriage. During pre-internet times, the cultural exchange worked far more slowly, which allowed for the cuisine to evolve at its own pace and for each area to fine-tune their specialities,” Tan explains.
To illustrate, the kueh bengka beras, made with regular rice, is a much-loved snack in Penang but one is hard-pressed to find it in Singapore. Conversely, the kueh bengka pulot is popular in Singapore but a rare find in Penang. Interestingly, both types of bengka are almost identical in their recipes, save for the rice used. But in Melaka, these bengka varieties can be easily found.
In writing The Way of Kueh, Tan interviewed 40 kueh-makers. “It was very important to me to not ask any of them to contribute their recipes – I wanted to respect their intellectual property. In fact, I hope many of them will write their own cookbooks someday.” What he did, however, was to create a total of 102 recipes, “starting from the first principles, and drawing from my own taste memories, personal heritage and food knowledge. I also cooked, styled and photographed the images in the book, excluding the portrait shots of myself and a couple of the kueh-makers.”
Published in 2019, The Way of Kueh won Book of the Year at the sixth edition of the Singapore Book Awards in August last year. It was hailed by the judging panel as the first book that pushes the history and culture of kueh in all its splendour and range into the spotlight. “Its impact, relevance and importance is in its contribution to the heritage and knowledge it brings to the community as well as to the culinary world.”