A Love Letter To Kueh: Of Heritage & Harmony
Celebrating Racial Harmony Day 2021
Kueh. Pronounced the way ‘quay’ in Boat Quay is mispronounced. The word originates from the Hokkien character ‘粿’ and is spelt differently all across the region. Kue for Indonesians. Kuih for Malaysians. Kueh for Singaporeans. Somewhere between glutinous and gluttonous, they fill the hearts and pantries of South-East Asia with festive seasons giving an easy excuse to stock up. We need more for the…guests?
It’s sometimes confusing to identify the authentic origins of a kueh. Supermarket shelves seem to be lined up with the same kuehs irrespective of the festive season. Same love letters in the same transparent jars with the same red lids – just with a different label for CNY, Hari Raya and Deepavali. Maybe it’s because much of the history of kueh is born out of cultural immersion or maybe we just can’t get enough of our neighbours’ cuisines. Either way, it’s hard to gatekeep, because what exactly makes a kueh a kueh? They can be long and thin, short and round, sweet or savoury, fruity or nutty, crispy or chewy. They can be eaten as dessert, as a tea-time snack, part of a meal or simply as a welcome distraction during a festive gathering. Can’t talk with my mouth full.
The only golden thread binding all kueh-making is that it is a labour of love and a symbol or harmony. Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and Eurasian cuisines have their own renditions of kueh with slightly different key ingredients. As Christopher Tan, cooking instructor and author of the “Way of Kueh” puts it,
“Every heritage cuisine grows out of community, diversity and shared emotion. Different palates, perspectives, senses and sensibilities are the soil, fertiliser and weather which bring a gastronomy to full maturity. So, you see, the wonderful thing about kueh is that is belongs to each of us and also to all of us.”
As we commemorate Hari Raya Haji and Racial Harmony Day this month, let’s take a closer look at the kuehs that bring us together and the home bakers who dared to keep our shared heritage alive.
Kueh Salat is a classic within Malay and Peranakan cuisine with a layer of flavoured custard resting on a bed of coconut milk-immersed glutinous rice. It also goes by ‘puteri (princess) salat’ and ‘seri muka’ (pretty face) because of its beauty. With @bluepea.sg’s Kueh Salat, you don’t have to worry about artificial beauty as they handpick and extract their own butterfly pea flowers and pandan leaves to infuse natural fragrances and colours. Head on to their IG page and let your eyes feast on the natural beauty of our heritage foods before your lips get a taste.
Snuggly wrapped in a banana leaf, Yi Bua is not widely-eaten outside the Hainanese community. Made of glutinous rice flour filled with a filling of ginger, sesame and peanuts, this kueh is a mainstay at Hainanese weddings and birthday celebrations. For the uninitiated, home baker @allthings.hainanese presents an opportunity to expand your tastebuds with their no-preservatives Yi Bua which also come in a bite-sized mochi format. On the off-chance that your box of kueh doesn’t disappear in seconds, the team provides a handy preheating guide so you’ll know how to treat your kueh right.
Kueh Lapis Sagu
This multi-coloured delicacy needs no introduction other than ‘the rainbow one’. Kueh Lapis Sagu, also known as Kow Teng Kueh, is widely considered a Peranakan kueh. Baba-Nonya culture combines Chinese influences from Malay, Indonesian, and colonial cultures which might explain the confusing origin story of the Kueh Lapis Sagu with claims to have found its roots in both Indonesia and China. Homebaker @yummybitez_ offers her Kueh Lapis Sagu along with Pumpkin Ondeh-Ondeh and Kueh Salat. Typically, the kueh has an auspicious 9-layers and a silent mark of growing up is taking a bite of the kueh instead of peeling it off by layer.
Can it be dubbed the Southeast Asian mille crepe? Kueh Lapis might not have French origins but is an adaptation of the Dutch delicacy ‘baumkuchen’ which was brought over to this side of the world when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. The pastry was modified in consideration of local tastes and regional spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom are included in local varieties. Making Kueh Lapis is a tedious process of cooking the batter layer by layer, which might explain its position as a cake worthy to be gifted and shared during festive occasions. Apart from the classic Kueh Lapis, home baker @belicious.sg serves a version with prunes and a rainbow rendition of the classic delight.
Ondeh-ondeh are pandan-flavoured glutinous rice balls filled with molten gula melaka, coated with grated coconut. They are also called ‘buah melaka’ because of their resemblance to the round and green fruits of the melaka tree. Sama-sama, but very different. These green balls unravel into a sweet explosion leaving grated coconut on your lips as the only evidence left. Home baker @gracioushomebakes doesn’t just go green. She goes beyond that, serving a plethora of rainbow ondeh-ondehs.
Apart from being a symbol for unity and wholeness, the round shape of the ondeh-ondeh is easy to mould and cook, which makes them a common shape for kueh in the region. A ball of dough from glutinous rice flour has great potential within the genre. If you roll it in sesame seeds and deep fry it, you get Jian Dui. If you wrap it in banana leaves and steam it, you get Kueh Koci. If you poach it in boiling water and serve it with coconut cream, you get Kue Putri Mandi.
What we learnt from Kueh
Kueh teaches us that though we look different in colour, shape and size, we may have a lot more in common than we imagine. Christopher Tan continues in his book, The Way of Kueh: Savouring & Saving Singapore’s Heritage Desserts, that the traditional techniques of grinding rice, frying fillings and kneading dough are not meant for solo cooks. “They require the arms of a family, the hands of a village, the strength of the young and the wise counsel of the elderly”. Celebrating kueh and the hands that make them is as much a love letter to the kampong spirit, heritage, and harmony as it is about food.
Kueh, as we know it, will continue to adapt between tradition and trends. The future’s not ours to see.
Kueh Sera, Sera.