Classic Southeast Asian treats in the form of local kueh such as Malay kueh talam and Nonya kueh salat, or Malay putu piring and Chinese kueh tutu, from across the cultures get a level up thanks to a new generation of kueh makers and chefs
The origins of kueh are difficult to trace. Their name means “cake” in Hokkien, yet they have been made by the Malays, Chinese, Peranakans and Eurasians for generations. Figuring out which kueh came first and from which culture it is from is akin to delving into that age-old question involving the chicken and the egg. Best to leave the speculation behind and enjoy these delicious and distinctly Southeast Asian delicacies instead.
Most kueh feature Malay, Chinese and Portuguese influences that speak of cultural crossovers between Malaya’s earliest natives and settlers. The singular thing we know for sure about kueh is its history of bringing families together, as they were traditionally made to mark important occasions such as weddings, religious festivals, and the turning of a new year.
Perhaps because of their inherently colourful, multicultural nature, kueh has, in recent times, come to be synonymous with Peranakan culture. The cultural cross-overs among the kueh-kueh of the Malays, Chinese and Peranakans are so blurred that the untrained eye or palate might find it difficult to discern the difference between the likes of Malay kueh talam and Nonya kueh salat, or Malay putu piring and Chinese kueh tutu.
Thus, it is important to reference the cultural histories of kueh and understand them in order to evolve them for more sophisticated palates in these modern times, as many restaurants and kueh makers are doing today.
Kueh salat has received much attention in the last decade, thanks to a new generation of chefs and kueh makers, who have made it their mission to elevate this iconic Malay and Peranakan confection. A favourite at weddings in both cultures, the Malays call it putri (princess) salat or seri muka (pure or pretty face). Ever the maximalists, the Peranakans gild the proverbial lily with an indigo mar-bling of butterfly pea extract through the kueh’s base layer of glutinous rice.
The likes of Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut and online kueh purveyor Mrs Kueh have given the dessert an elegant spin in recent years. They have either used western pastry techniques to yield a light and unimpeachably smooth layer of kaya custard, or by riff-ing on the original with a gula melaka and purple glutinous rice variation served with rich dollops of quality durian flesh on the side.
Widely sold by hawkers in Singapore’s early days, this quintessential Teochew kueh is named for the julienned bamboo shoots (“soon” in Teochew) in its filling. Over the years, jicama (or yam bean) replaced bamboo shoots since it was much cheaper and easier to procure in eras past. Of late, kueh makers like Nick Soon and Karen Kuah of One Kueh at a Time have brought a sense of modern-day elegance to this classic snack by creating a thinner, crystalline skin and shaping them as chubby little pot stickers rather than their traditional half-moon forms. Others like Angeline Teoh of House of Kueh render the skins more silken by carefully pouring the batter directly onto the steaming plate and forming the kueh as it cooks, much like how one would make chee cheong fun (steamed rice rolls). Teoh has also brought back the traditional filling of bamboo shoots but with the heartier addition of slivered black fungus and minced pork.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Spiced meat enrobed in glutinous rice, Indonesian lemper is traditionally rolled into fragrant logs. Its many cousins include Malay pulut panggang, where the package harbours a filling of serundeng (spicy fried coconut), and Nonya rempah udang so named for its spiced dried shrimp and coconut filling. To maintain a neat-looking package, Carol Widjaya and her team at Ratu Lemper press their lemper into tidy cubes and wrap them in linear strips of fragrant banana leaves. Besides the finely shredded chicken filling, they have developed new flavours with various levels of spiciness, such as mutton satay and extra spicy chicken, to cater to a new generation of fans of this traditional kueh.
Also central to the Malay heritage are kueh such as kueh bakar pandan, ondeh-ondeh and kueh bingka ubi kayu, of which variations abound across numerous cultures. Kueh bingka, especially, has roots so extensive that versions of it abound across Southeast Asia and as far as Brazil. Made of grated cassava, coconut milk, eggs and sugar, it is called bengka by the Peranakans and bolo de aipim by the Brazilians. The Filipinos have a similar version made of glutinous rice called bibingka.
To elevate the bengka at his restaurant Kin, chef Damian D’Silva caramelises the sugar before adding it to the batter and uses a touch of salted butter to enrich the kueh in both texture and flavour. He serves it with a pot of gula melaka syrup for guests to drizzle over the burnished-from-toasting slices of kueh.
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