The humble kueh gets a new lease of life from speciality shops and artisans who are reinventing and preserving this well-loved legacy
The humble kueh gets a new lease of life
Kuehs can be a difficult concept to explain to those who did not grow up eating them. In Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, a kueh can be either sweet or savoury, steamed or baked. It can be anything from a pastry to a dumpling to a cake. A kueh can be enjoyed anytime of the day; yet it is also an integral part of religious and cultural festivities in Southeast Asia. Each region and family holds its own traditional recipes, with each as veritably authentic as the next. In fact, many safeguard their recipes as treasured family secrets. Through the years and with the confluence of cultures, these variables have brought about an exotic smorgasbord of kuehs in Singapore’s culinary landscape.
Such diversity is showcased in the third edition of the Kueh Appreciation Day, happening on 23 July this year. The interactive event, which includes live demonstrations and tasting sessions, started in 2015 as part of Slow Food (Singapore)’s efforts to safeguard our nation’s gastronomic heritage. At the event this year, the kueh showcased will span from Hakka and Eurasian classics to relatively ‘newer’ kueh that have arrived on our shores from Indonesia.
The success of Kueh Appreciation Day reflects a renewed enthusiasm for bygone or heritage foods in Singapore. Within the industry, a new wave of chefs and entrepreneurs are working to keep the art of handcrafted kueh alive. Think local cake shop Chalk Farm’s wheels of kueh salat, launched in 2014 and served whole. With its glutinous rice base beautifully stained blue with butterfly pea flower extract, and its kaya layer rich with freshly squeezed coconut milk and pandan juice, it is a proud tribute to the ways of old. In fact, its makers even advise against refrigerating the confection, stating unequivocably: “It will never quite be the same again”. Meanwhile, Singaporean chef Malcolm Lee crafts plated desserts of sugee cake with local goat’s milk ice cream; and a kueh salat with bangkit crumble and young coconut sorbet at his one Michelin-starred restaurant Candlenut.
Their efforts do not just bring about tasty confections, they also inspire conversation and hopefully ignite interest and resolve in preserving our food heritage, one dainty piece of kueh at a time. It’s not just about celebrating heritage brands and familiar flavours from our childhoods either, but discovering lesser-known gems and learning to appreciate diversity. Here, we highlight some of the less common kueh one can find in Singapore:
A sticky rice cake with spicy meat filling, lemper—a popular snack in Indonesia—is made by soaking the rice overnight for a tender bite, then packing the rice with a spicy meat filling. The lemper is rolled in a banana leaf, and steamed or grilled to release a subtle, grassy aroma.
This Indonesian favourite has taken a life of its own at Ratu Lemper (16 Baghdad Street), a lemper speciality shop started last year. Despite being a relatively new player in the kueh scene, Ratu Lemper has been consistently selling out 7,000 pieces of lemper a week, which is no mean feat on an island pulsating with ever-changing food trends. Aliya Widjaja, who runs the shop and is the eponymous Ratu Lemper (which translates as “Queen of Lemper”), built a formidable following relying mostly on social media and word-of-mouth recommendations.
CHI KAK KUEH
Though it resembles png kueh, the well-loved Teochew glutinous rice dumpling, the chi kak kueh is anything but. Brought to Singapore during the colonial days by Teochew immigrants, chi kak kueh gets its name from the herb which gives it a dark, ashy grey colour: the Gnaphalium affine or Jersey cudweed. These sweet, chewy dumplings are either filled with mung bean or sesame paste.
It is available at Teochew confectioner Kuehs and Snacks (Block 125 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-164 Alexandra Village C3 and Block 7 #01-84 Empress Road) which has, over the years, adapted its recipe to accommodate the local palate by reducing its sugar content and softening the skin.
As a Eurasian confection, pang susie might be the lesser-known sister of the Eurasian sugee cake, but it is by no means less impressive. This savoury-sweet bun is equal parts bite and punchy flavour. The tender crumb gets its unique texture from puréed sweet potato worked right into the dough. The unctuous filling of minced pork or chicken sweetened with winter melon is not unlike your typical Nonya bak zhang (rice dumpling). However it packs a headier punch of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Mary Gomes, chef-owner of Mary’s Kafe (1 Queen Street), obtained her pang susie recipe from a Canossian nun in Malacca. “The recipe is unique, unlike others that use bread dough,” shares Gomes, who is also the author of The Eurasian Cookbook and
A Celebration of A Singapore Kitchen, which focuses on local fare.
HarriAnns (230 Victoria Street, #01-01A) is a textbook example of how traditional food establishments can reinvent a legacy with great success. It might be over 50 years old, but HarriAnns is young in spirit. The owners are enthusiastic about innovation. Enter The Pink Fairy, a dual-layer steamed cake reminiscent of the Malay putri salat, but with a base of pink coconut cream atop Adzuki beans. Together with variations such as lavender and corn, it is part of HarriAnns’ effort to market its products to a younger audience.
“Our kueh has evolved with time in terms of flavour, taste and aesthetic appeal, but even in this modern age and time, we still insist on using traditional methods to produce our kueh the way Grandma used to,” says Alan Tan, third-generation owner of HarriAnns.
The Hainanese version of the Cantonese style bak zhang, it features the similar combination of steamed glutinous rice and meat filling (albeit one infused with garlic flavours). But eating it is a unique ritual altogether. First, one has to unwrap the kueh from its wrapping, woven from strips of coconut leaves into either a diamond or pyramid shape. Cutting up this woven shell with a pair of scissors or a knife is frowned upon by the older generation. Instead, custom dictates one to unravel the leaves one by one—a process known as “the loosening”. In Hainanese custom, this process symbolises overcoming difficulties. When gifted during good times, the larp is said to preserve good fortune; when gifted during difficult times, the larp conveys comfort and strength.
This Hainanese dumpling can be found at Hainan Xiaochi (22 Toa Payoh Lorong 7, #01-35). The stall has been making traditional Hainanese snacks for over three decades and is also known for their yi buah—a kueh made from glutinous rice flour, shredded coconut, sesame and peanuts that’s usually eaten at special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.
Right Chicken lemper
Clockwise from right Pang Susie; Chi kak kueh
Opposite page, from top Pink Fairy; Larp kueh