SINGAPORE (Dec 27): Christopher Tan, author, baker and foodie, has bandages on his fingers when journalists meet him in the spacious workspace of The Kitchen Society, where he teaches every week. They are a result of fervent baking and cooking the night before (and the next morning) for the launch of his newest book, The Way of Kueh, and he sheepishly shows the gathered journalists his “battle wounds” while busying himself with steaming ang ku kueh, rolling dough for jian dui and wiping the steam from his glasses.
He had cut himself on the sharp edges of a deadly looking contraption he had used to grate the tapioca tubers for kueh bingka, which is also made with sugar, coconut milk, eggs and pandan leaves, then baked to golden-brown and soft perfection. When he unmoulds the fragrant and sweet kueh from a round brass cake pan some moments later, his eyes light up.
It is worth it. The kueh bingka is as all good kueh bingka should be: darkly caramelised on top, firm to the bite, but gives way easily to melt in the mouth with the rich and indulgent flavour of coconut.
“What doesn’t food mean to me?” he replies, when asked what food means to him as an author of 13 books (including The Way of Kueh and the award-winning Nerd Baker) and a lifelong food writer. “Growing up in a Peranakan family, everyone is generally obsessed with food. You grow up having it constantly around you; I always had cookbooks around me to read when I was a boy. “If I were to call myself an artist, then food is my medium.” If so, then The Way of Kueh must be his magnum opus, at least up till now. This book of 102 recipes for kueh — traditional and modern — is not just a book of recipes but also a narrative of tradition, family, community and history. It is important, hugely so, to Tan that this book celebrates the stories behind the kueh we all know and enjoy.
The idea for The Way of Kueh started forming in Tan’s mind five or six years ago, though it began to take proper shape only around 2015. It was not until he was awarded the Heritage Project Grant from the National Heritage Board two years ago that he was finally able to focus almost full-time on the making of the book. Thus his labour of love began, although Tan never did think it was laborious; he prefers to say it was “effortful”. “Laborious implies that the labour was not worth it. I like to use the word ‘effortful’ because, whatever effort you put into, it will be rewarded,” he explains.
Once he received the grant, it was two years of fullon research: combing through libraries, scouring the internet, walking around looking for, well, kueh. “The most crucial — it would not be exaggerating to call it life-changing — research, however, was interviewing all the veteran kueh-makers and letting their life perspectives and wise words illuminate the subject for me. They are such inspirations.”
Tan had wanted The Way of Kueh to be something more than a collection of recipes. He was driven to write it from a confluence of factors. “It was the seemingly waning importance of kueh in the average Singaporean’s life, displaced by trendier foods from elsewhere,” he says. “[It was also] the urgent need to preserve heritage and heirloom kueh recipes, which may be more endangered than other kinds of recipes, perhaps because the heirloom recipes are tied to certain cultural festivals or are perceived as laborious to make.”
Tan also wanted to encourage people to enjoy the emotional and family-bonding benefits of making and eating kueh together — a childhood memory he remains very fond of. “Certainly, one of the highlights of my school days was buying a piece of kueh lapis kukus (steamed layer kueh) as a mid-afternoon snack and then slowly, painstakingly eating it layer by layer, trying to peel each layer off while simultaneously stretching it out as far as possible without tearing it. Actually, I confess I still eat it this way if nobody is watching me,” he says jokingly. Add to the fact that there simply was no definitive cookbook that would consolidate all of Singapore’s kueh — not just from a single community such as Peranakan or Malay — in easy-to-follow detail, and The Way of Kueh was born.
“Why is the heritage behind these treats important? The answer is in the question — because it is, in fact, ours. All our communities make kueh or its equivalent: for example, Indian sweets for Deepavali to celebrate special moments or seasons in life, and they have done so at home for much, much longer than they have preferred to buy them ready-made — the latter is a relatively recent, modern phenomenon,” Tan says. “Kueh has so much meaning within the context of all our cultures, meaning that is just lost if kueh is no longer made or understood.”
There is so much rich cultural history and cultural capital involved in kueh, says Tan, which is sometimes lost in today’s ready-made kueh. “One thing the Chinese kueh makers pointed out to me was that many kueh used to be highly seasonal, meaning they were made only at very specific times of the year — New Year or Winter Solstice, for example — and they’d have to wait the whole year to eat it. There was an aura of ‘special’ around the kueh; you put extra effort into it and don’t gobble it all at once.
“Progress and growth are meaningless and unanchored without the roots of heritage. As [chef and patissier] Pang Kok Keong put it when I interviewed him: ‘Where are you going to go if you don’t know where you come from?’”