Wei-ing in on kueh

6 06 2022

Kueh (also spelt kuih) — a range of snacks popular in this part of the world — is something that almost anyone who lives in Singapore finds pleasure in. A firm favourite, especially amongst the young, is the rainbow-like assembly of sticky and individually coloured layers of sweetened and flavoured rice flour that is known locally as kueh lapis sagu. Most will agree that this snack seems most enjoyable when dismantled and then consumed one layer at a time.

The unusual, a rather yummy kueh salat laksa.

For me, stuffing one’s mouth with kueh of any variety, counts as one of the simplest of pleasures of living in SIngapore, even if I did have a rather traumatic experience once doing just that. It happened the Chinese New Year when I was seven at a kampong house of a family friend in Punggol. As tradition would have it, snacks and goodies were placed on the table, including a plate of ang ku kueh or red tortoise (shell-shaped) snack. Unable to resist the call of the red tortoise shell, I helped myself to an ang ku kueh. Biting into the sweet, somewhat sticky but soft and quite delicious bean paste filled snack, I promptly swallowed. It was at that point of swallowing that I realised — to my absolute horror — that I had quite literally bitten off more than I could chew when I felt a shaky milk tooth going down the mouthful of kueh.

Wei of Indie Singapore Tours.

My subsequent encounters with ang ku kueh would prove far more enjoyable, the most recent of which involved downing a variety of kueh, including ang ku kueh, in (and with )good spirits as part of a specially curated tour. The tour Whis-Kueh, offers an interesting perspective on kueh and what passes off as kueh in Singapore, taking participants first on a walk through the streets of Chinatown in search of the traditional makers of kueh and kueh’s many local variations. Why Whis, one may ask? Well, the reward at the end of the walk is not only a really tasty platter of kueh — some of which is now rarely found, but also a few swigs of whiskey (and rum) that quite surprisingly is able to bring out the best in some of the kueh.

In search of the original location of one of the traditional pastry shops.

Curated by Wei, the founder of Indie Singapore Tours which is running the experience, the tour offers quite unique and interesting insights into kueh. For the experience, Indie Tours has partnered with Furama City Centre (FCC) — the venue for the whiskey and kueh pairing session during the second half of the tour, and with INTERCO-MLE — the source of the whiskies (and rum), all of which are sourced from various distilleries, and independently bottled by the company. Besides kueh sourced from traditional kueh makers such as Ji Xiang Ang Ku Kueh, Tong Heng Traditional Cantonese Pastries, and Poh Guan Cake House (the source of the now hard-to-find Teochew chi-kak or “rat-shell grass” kueh (鼠壳粿), even if it is a traditional Hokkien cake maker), the kueh platter will also feature two of FCC offerings — the durian pengat and a really delicious kueh salat laksa. Much like ang ku kueh in my childhood, I am never able to resist durian and a good kueh salat, which traditionally sees a glutinous rice base topped most often with a pandan flavoured sweet custard layer. The laksa salat reminded me of a savoury salat that I once tasted, only this, as my fellow participants would attest to, was really out of this world!

The reward.

The short and sweet but thoroughly enjoyable, highly educational, and most definitely weight gaining two-hour experience runs every Saturday from 3.30 to 5.30 pm (minimum 4 to go) and is priced at $120/-. For more information, and bookings, please visit https://indiesingapore.com/tour/whiskueh/.

Chinese Cake.
Traditional Teochew kueh from top and clockwise: png/tao kueh (饭/桃粿); soon kueh (笋粿); and chi-kak kueh (鼠壳粿) – served at the Chui Huay Lim Club.

What is kueh?

The word kueh in Singapore is used to describe many types of snacks or even dishes. Kueh can be colourful, but can also be rather colourless. Kueh can be savoury, but are more often than not sinfully sweet. Locally, the word is often translated as “cake” or “pastry”. It however is hard to really translate what a kueh actually is, and describing any kueh as a cake, does not in my opinion do any kueh justice. While the word kueh may be Chinese in origin, the use of that single syllable extends also the rich array of locally adapted and created kueh, or kuih in Malay, that reflect regional tastes and flavours, and ingredients used in the region.

The origin of the word is in the Minnan languages such as Hokkien or Teochew, which was spoken by a large majority of Chinese immigrants to Singapore and the region and amongst who were some of the earliest Chinese settlers in the region. The Minnan word kueh (粿), describes types of snacks that are usually made from glutinous rice flour. Here however, sweet potato flour, and even mung bean flour — known locally as tepung hoon kueh (hoon kueh being Minnah for “kueh flour” and tepung, the Malay word for flour) is also used. Some examples of traditional Chinese kueh includes savoury steamed rice “water cakes” or chwee kueh (水粿) and chai tow kueh (菜头粿) or carrot (more accurately “radish”) cake and soon kueh (笋粿). Sweet(ish) kueh includes huat kueh (发粿) or “prosperity cake”, often used for prayer offerings, and ang ku kueh (红龟粿).

The hard to resist durian pengat, which surprisingly goes well with the stronger whiskies.


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