Just in time for Christmas, The Way Of Kueh is a noteworthy ode to heritage cakes that is already a local non-fiction bestseller

The last couple of years have been good for kueh in Singapore. With young bakers opening dedicated stores across the island and restaurants dishing out elegant renditions of popular kueh, Singaporeans have rediscovered their love for these colourful traditional confections.

In that respect, Christopher Tan’s latest book The Way Of Kueh is as timely as the arrival of fruitcake at Christmas. The renewed enthusiasm for eating kueh has led to a burgeoning interest in making kueh. But the latter is often stymied by the lack of clear and tried-and-true resources, which is where The Way of Kueh comes in.

In it, Tan provides 98 detailed recipes for traditional Malay, Chinese, Eurasian and Peranakan kueh, each tried, tested and re-tested. A multi-hyphenate of the old school, the 40-something Tan is a food writer, food historian and culinary instructor, which means the book offers so much more than guidance on how to make kueh. It delves into the science and cultural history of kueh in Singapore, and unearths the regional connections between the likes of a Peranakan kueh bahalu and Eurasian bolu cocu, and sheds light on the craft and personal experiences of respected kueh-makers across Singapore.  

(Related: The Future Of Singapore Cuisine Defined)

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Above Christopher Tan is a full-time food writer, food historian and culinary instructor

“One of the prime motivations that drove me to write The Way of Kueh was seeing how little attention our heritage kueh are receiving these days in comparison to the food trends driven by breathless reportage in social and print media,” said Tan. “In local bookstores, for every book on kueh, there are 10 books on Western sourdough bread, patisserie and decorated cakes. If our home cooks have time for those—and judging by the number of classes and workshops being offered locally for them, they do—then they certainly have time for kueh, which are so often unjustly stigmatised for being laborious.

“I felt I needed to remind myself and everyone how much value kueh possess as part of our national culinary heritage, how their making and meaning have always brought our families and communities together around the table.”

Labour of love

With Tan’s eloquently precise instructions that leave no guesswork to the first-time kueh-maker, there is no reason why anyone can’t turn out a kueh (or five) from the book. And indeed, it is a book for kueh noobs and nerds alike. Experienced home cooks might find fresh perspectives on familiar ingredients and methods, while those interested in the stories and provenance of our kueh culture will find much to absorb themselves in—not least Tan’s elegantly engaging writing style.

Writing a book is a labour of love for all authors, but Tan didn’t just write this seminal tome—he also applied for the Heritage Project Grant from the National Heritage Board (the application itself is a veritable exercise in authorship) that helped afford him the two years it took to complete the book. He developed, tested and re-tested every recipe in it, and styled and photographed every cleanly-lit picture in its pages.

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When asked about the most challenging aspect of producing the book, Tan replied, “The sheer volume of work—choosing the hundred-odd items which best represent our country’s kueh repertoire, and then creating and refining recipes for all of them from scratch. I am still catching up on all the sleep I have lost over the past two years!”

The rewards, however, have been justly swift. The fortnight after its launch in mid-November, The Way Of Kueh became the biggest local non-fiction bestseller at Kinokuniya. “What makes me happiest now is seeing how readers are responding to the book,” he said. “Many have expressed to me their delight and gratitude at seeing long-cherished kueh appear in print, which totally makes my day.”

The Way of Kueh is available at Kinokuniya and at Epigram Books.