Preserving Singapore's Food Heritage with Handmade Kueh

Hainan Xiao Chi

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries 6
Goh See Mui demonstrating how yi bua is made

At first glance, it’s a nondescript hawker stall selling traditional Chinese foodstuffs, but that appearance belies the fact that Hainan Xiao Chi—also known as Hainan Cuisine & Snacks—is an icon of the ongoing move to preserve and revive interest in heritage foods in Singapore. Simon Goh, a second-generation stall co-owner who is the face of the brand and a stalwart in Singapore’s heritage food scene, says the business was started by his mother, Yeoh Min Lin, 79, more than 40 years ago when her husband passed away and she needed the means to raise their five children. Today, Goh See Mui, one of Yeoh’s daughters, has taken on the matriarch’s duties— and venerable recipes—as the stall’s main kueh maker.

The stall is now synonymous with the otherwise obscure Hainanese snacks yi bua (ginger-laced sesame, peanut, and coconut encased in a tender glutinous rice flour skin), larp (fragrant glutinous rice dumplings, with or without fillings, cooked in a tightly woven coconut leaf pouch), and kwei dai jian, which is also known as Chicken Poop Noodles/Chinese fever vine dessert (Paederia foetida is a herb with an initially nasty smell that, “when dried, ground and mixed with glutinous rice flour, makes pleasantly fragrant skinny noodles that go best with a bowl of hot ginger soup”). Simon laments the gradual disappearance of traditional kueh and other dishes from local hawker centres and stores. “They now tend to appear only during festive occasions like weddings, house-warming parties, baby showers, or at heritage food exhibitions,” he says, for which they are prepared in smaller and smaller amounts by “aunties and grandmas that haven’t seen the younger generation stepping up to learn”. Rather forlornly, he notes that “the number of people who know how to make them is diminishing year on year”.

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries 2
Wrapping the yi bua

As part of his efforts to “remind Hainanese of who they are, and remind Singaporeans young and old of their rich cultural heritage”, Simon has pushed for Hainan Xiao Chi to participate in and demonstrate kueh-making at various cultural events over the years. These include Slow Food Singapore’s annual Kueh Appreciation Day, the 2015 SG50 My Ah Ma Make One campaign, and nearby schools’ heritage trail activities. He also maintains strong ties with the Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan (clan association). “We insist on making our products in the traditional way, by hand, fresh every morning, you see,” he explains. “That’s why not every dish is available year-round; they are meaningful only during particular seasons. So there’s a need to find other avenues to reach out to more people, because it is through our passing on of authentic, traditional foods to the younger generation that our culture and roots can be retained.”

How does it all link up? “Larp is a symbolic delicacy commonly associated with affection and auspicious occurrences. It’s tradition to take the time and effort to undo the woven larp shells in order to eat a larp that is gifted to you. This practice, called “The Loosening” in Hainanese, symbolises the loosening and removal of anxiety, tension, worry, injury or other concerns. “Yi bua comes to us from a folktale from 17th Century China. The snack became a symbol of happiness, reunion, and deep bonds when a young man who had left to join the navy was finally reunited with his mother. ” Simon’s enthusiasm embraces anyone who is interested. It matters little if they are from other dialects or races. “We just always need people who are passionate about, or are keen to learn or share about preserving heritage foods and culture. Memory and history aren’t restrictive unless we make them so.”

22 Toa Payoh Lorong 7, #01-35, Singapore 310022. Website here 

Peranakan Khek

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries 4

Peranakan Khek’s quietly elegant shopfront, emblazoned with its delicate pink peony logo, draws the eye without having to shout or beg for attention. Sitting prettily in neat rows behind the retail counter is the day’s limited supply of kueh—not many, as Peranakan Khek is largely a takeaway business that runs on pre-orders. It’s a young brand—chef-owner Sharon Low opened the store in June 2016—but it has already garnered a strong reputation for the skilful handling of humble ingredients, respect for traditional recipes, generosity with ingredients, and great attention to detail.

Much of this stems from her background in Western pastry, which she was excited about when she was younger. But working as a pastry cook led to her developing a fascination for traditional kueh. “I felt that my own heritage was underrated,” Sharon says. “The level of appreciation that people have for, say, a macaron, tends to be a lot higher than that for something like kueh salat (steamed kaya custard atop glutinous rice), which I felt was quite a shame. “Western pastry requires a lot of precision, but because every batch of ingredients from the same brand behaves exactly the same, the results are predictable as long as you follow the recipe. With traditional recipes, there are a lot more variables, and a lot more room for error, as many core ingredients are fresh. Take tapioca for example: A particular root being older or younger makes a difference in its starchiness and water content, requiring a cook to make on-the-spot judgment calls and adjustments.” “People don’t seem to be learning these techniques and recipes from their parents and grandparents,” she adds, “so a lot of them are in danger of being lost for good. I find meaning in trying to preserve them, and trying to revive interest in and appreciation for them. I think a lot more value needs to be put on this sort of product, not least because it is all extremely labour-intensive.”

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries 5
Assortment of kueh at Peranakan Khek

Lack of historical documentation makes Sharon’s mission an uphill task. Hours upon hours of research— including library trawls and informal interviews with kueh makers from the older generation—and trial and error in the kitchen go into every kueh that’s available for sale at Peranakan Khek. “I often feel like I’m chasing after a particular flavour or texture from my memory or my imagination,” she says. “I have recipes like kueh putugal (steamed tapioca fudge stuffed with fragrant banana), which is re-created from my memory of something I ate while on a trip with friends, that I can’t be sure are actually ‘authentic’.” Sharon, who is Hakka (her grandmother is Peranakan), confesses to being slightly exasperated by many Singaporeans’ obsession with “authenticity”.

“When I first started out, people kept asking me, ‘Are you Peranakan?’ as though that alone made my work legitimate or authentic. I was like, ‘Who cares?’ Japanese chefs make Italian food, and nobody bats an eye when a Chinese chef specialises in French cuisine.” She maintains that she’s more into celebrating regional ingredients than dealing with vague concepts. “There are recipes that are already as good as it gets, and I don’t ever want to mess with those. But what I like about Peranakan kueh is that the ingredients are all very humble and simple. The fact that attention to detail is what makes one kueh differ from another is often overlooked. So there are original recipes, like kueh koci kacang, that came about because I felt a particular combination was something I wanted to eat, and I created it.”

11 Cavan Road, #01-03, Cavan Suites, Singapore 209848. Website here

Pang's Hakka Delicacies

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries
Suan pan zi (abacus seeds)

He’s renowned as one of Singapore’s most respected and cutting-edge pastry chefs, so it surprised many when Pang Kok Keong of French restaurant Antoinette started making traditional Hakka kueh. The chef himself, however, seems to think such a move was inevitable. “I’d been wanting to do this for the longest time,” says Pang. “It was just a matter of waiting for the right time and the right platform. Even before the 2016 Kueh Appreciation Day, I’d been researching traditional Hakka dishes and confectioneries. The event gave me the opportunity to put that into practice for a proper audience—so that you know, it’s not just ‘I make and I eat’—and get a real response from the public.” His resultant venture, Pang’s Hakka Delicacies, has garnered plenty of attention and praise, but while he’s delighted that people enjoy his versions of suan pan zi (yam “abacus seeds” wok-fried with garlic, Chinese leek, dried shrimps, dried cuttlefish, Chinese mushroom, black fungus, minced pork, and Chinese celery), suan ban/leek kueh (leek, pressed beancurd, dried shrimp and garlic encased in a translucent starch-based skin), and yam cake—enough to hot-foot it around the block a few times when they can’t find the pick-up at Antoinette’s back-alley entrance—he doesn’t really see himself as a cultural curator or heritage champion.

“It’s a labour of love,” Pang says with a smile. “It just dawned on me one day that if I were to put as much effort and energy into researching and exploring my own heritage as I did with French pastry, it would be very rewarding, because at the end of the day, it’s my own cultural heritage.” Asked to share a couple of significant differences between his Western training and his current obsession, Pang turns earnest. “Unlike French pastry, in which there are so many resources and recipes to rely on, it’s really difficult to get your hands on a good heritage recipe. Honestly, to get just one recipe right, we go through so many rounds of testing and trials to refine the recipe, the methods, the procedures… until we feel that there’s really nothing left to improve. And still there are so many variables to consider. And there’s no one to guide me. “With the leek kueh, for example, we refined the skin recipe so many times because it kept breaking too easily. We experimented with different starches to make it more stable, keeping in mind that the end product still had to be recognisable as suan ban. So then we made 10 pieces, which turned out perfect; we later made 200 pieces for a kueh festival, and half of them broke after steaming.”

Why pick such complicated recipes, then? “Suan pan zi, like lei cha (ground tea, usually consisting of tea leaves, herbs, nuts and seeds), is uniquely Hakka, and iconic,” Pang shares. “The Teochews and Hokkiens have their own versions of ang gu kueh (sweet or sweet-savoury fillings encased in a soft sticky glutinous rice flour skin) and png kueh (savoury glutinous rice filling in a pink peach-shaped rice flour skin), for example. And the leek kueh is just something I’m very fond of that my mum used to make when I was young.”

Heritage Heroes: Nostalgic Visionaries 3
Chef Pang at work

Pang then drops a line that confuses me for a moment: “I never had suan pan zi when I was growing up, actually. You could say the flavour I’ve come up with is to some extent imaginary.” When the laughter (his) and consternation (mine) has died down, he explains. “It’s philosophical, in a way. Before I made my own, I tried all the versions I could get my hands on, but they didn’t have the sort of impact I imagined the dish should have. So I tried to think of how to make it Hakka—firstly by putting together all the significant ‘Hakka’ ingredients I could think of. We had to refine it from there. The flavour I wanted had to be nostalgic, like something a Hakka grandma would serve up, you know? “The whole thing is more of a personal journey than a business plan. I try not to think too deeply about what I’m doing; it’s something I enjoy, but I don’t know how long I am going to do it for.”

It’s safe to say that Pang is currently having too much fun to think about stopping anytime soon. His Hakka-inspired dishes on Antoinette’s menu (Hakka gnocchi, and Hakka noodles) are doing well, and he currently has his team testing a recipe for niu er duo/cow’s ear biscuits (a thin, crispy, sweet-savoury deep-fried dough based confection)—“We’re trying to have balance in the foods that we bring out, and build the menu into something more extensive, with both perishables and non-perishables.” He’s way too busy to think about passing on what he’s been learning through this experience, yet, but Pang manages to spare a thought for the future of the cuisine he’s working so hard to perfect: “Going through all these thoughts and processes really helps me to look at heritage foods differently, and I really hope that the people who try it won’t take that for granted.”

30 Penhas Road, Singapore 208118. Website here

This article first appear in the May/June 2018 issue of SALT Magazine.