Meet these passionate entrepreneurs who aim to safeguard traditional kueh heritage, yet thoughtfully fuse their own unique twist to appeal to the modern palates. The result? A variety of inventive flavours, lighter textures, quality ingredients as well as modern branding and packaging. Some of them associate their businesses with valuable social causes, and some intend to educate younger consumers via interesting workshops.
Yoon’s Traditional Teochew Kueh
Qara Yoon, started her Teochew kueh business about four years ago to preserve her food heritage. The director of Yoon’s Holdings Pte Ltd says, “Having witnessed my mum waking up in the wee hours when I was young to make kueh for the family, and insisting on quality ingredients, really impacted me. I wanted to ensure these recipes won’t fade away so that the generations to come still get to savour and know these tasty traditional kuehs.”
Qara strives to retain the traditional flavours of Teochew kuehs by recreating them the same way her grandmother and mother would prepare for their family. The recipes are mostly from Qara’s maternal grandmother, who hails from Puning. This area in the Jieyang prefecture, part of the Chaoshan region, is known for its vegetable kuehs (cai kueh) like gu cai kueh (chives), mang guang kueh (turnips), etc. “My dad’s side is from Teo Ann and they are good in png kuehs (glutinous rice) and cikak kuehs (cudweed-infused kueh skin). My mum learnt [to make these kueh] after marrying my dad. So really, I am leveraging the best of both Teochew kueh worlds!” Qara’s mother maintained the traditional taste of the kueh but enhanced the savoury snacks by using fresh ingredients and quality seasoning.
(Related: These are the best ang ku kueh in Singapore)
Yoon’s most popular items are the png kueh and cikak kueh. The former teems with fresh pork belly, quality mushrooms and peanuts. And the latter is a very traditional Teochew kueh, traditionally eaten only during Chinese New Year and Qing Ming Festival. Qara says that the kueh’s jade green skin comes from natural colouring – thanks to cikak grass that’s boiled and infused into the kueh skin. It is then filled with mungbean or peanut filling. “We recently launched our jiah soon kueh which is packed with pure bamboo shoots, fresh pork belly and mushrooms. This was how it was traditionally made.” In Singapore, turnips are mostly used these days.
Besides offering handmade Teochew kuehs, Yoon’s endeavours to impact the next generation by conducting fun hands-on kueh workshops to preserve kueh culture and heritage. “This viable business model allows us to generate revenue to support our social cause.” At the end of 2019, Qara set up this venture as a social enterprise “with a rehabilitation component to empower matured female ex-drug offenders – to lead a dignified life free from bondage of drug abuse.” She shares, “We do this through meaningful employment in a café setting (Yoon’s Social Kitchen); this is where we create a safe and unbiased environment for them to thrive, recover and rebuild their lives.”
She wants to provide a training platform for the women to hone their skills and eventually achieve a higher income level. Qara and her co-founder, Talia Lee (former executive director of The Turning Point, a female halfway house) also hope to find funding and resources to set up a Kueh Academy, to equip those who are keen to carve out a career in the kueh industry with valuable skills. They also coach the beneficiaries in communications skills and resiliency, and work closely with their family members to help facilitate relationship building and reconciliation.
For more information, visit https://yoonstraditionalteochewkueh.business.site/
Shiny Phua, founder AhMah’s Legacy, started her kueh business in June 2020 as a tribute to her grandmother who passed away during her final year at LASALLE College of the Arts. For her dissertation, Shiny wrote about traditional food, which she believes is not being appreciated by the younger generation as much these days. As part of her final year project, she also used her design skills to create a take-home soon kueh kit. Her initial idea was to educate the younger generation on how much work goes into the making of Teochew kueh. Before the Circuit Breaker in 2020, she even organised soon kueh workshops for fellow millennials.
“I felt that my grandma taught me so many valuable lessons and techniques that I wanted to share with the world, and thus I created the brand AhMah’s Legacy, as an homage to her. I hope to touch everyone’s heart, and showcase the beauty of home cooked food,” she says, adding that her objective is to demonstrate how traditional food can be modernised to suit today’s palates.
AhMah’s gu kueh skins are made with sweet potato, which is typically used in traditional recipes. “My grandma taught me the essence of kuehmaking. She harped on the idea that there was no such thing as a recipe, rather, it was more about ‘touch and feel’.” She made certain tweaks to her grandmothers’ recipes, by using different types of sweet potatoes to create varying colours for the skin.
For the filling, Shiny experiments with a variety of ingredients including roasted tahini and baked pistachios and even freshly toasted shredded coconut perfumed with cinnamon and star anise for the festive season. Although Shiny has devised all kinds of inventive flavours, her best-seller is still the classic peanut gu kueh.
She adds, “We ensure that the flavours of our kuehs are enjoyed by both the young and old; we make them not too sweet, yet fragrant enough.” The kuehs have layers of texture and flavours, too, thanks to the different ingredients used.
Besides gu kueh, Shiny also offers Original Hand Pounded AhMah’s Legacy Muah Chee in different flavours like salty pistachio and goma. She does it the old school way by laboriously knocking the chewy dough with a wooden stick.
Shiny believes that the younger generation will have the spending power to impact businesses. To her, it is important to cater to this audience that did not grow up with kueh as a staple, unlike their parents or grandparents. And hence, she does this by offering different varieties of flavour that will appeal to them. Meanwhile, she’s also hoping to improve on AhMah’s Legacy brand image as well as the packaging to ensure her kuehs can last longer.
For more information, visit www.ahmahslegacy.com
Hokkien Lang Kueh
Founder of Hokkien Lang Kueh, William Tan, who’s held top positions in many F&B groups didn’t plan to start this kueh venture. But the pandemic happened, and made him rethink his business plans. “I have spent many years as a hotelier and a restaurateur, opening and managing concepts from casual to fine dining, from very small to very large. My last project in Shenzhen, China spanned 30,000 sq ft and comprised 16 individual Japanese restaurants,” he says.
The father of two adds, “It hasn’t been an easy journey to say the least for the F&B industry, with the seemingly never-ending dining restrictions. Am I about to start another restaurant? I will never say never, but I decided that an online store selling a basic staple food that’s affordable could be a more risk-adverse business to start during these uncertain times. The online space is a wide universe. It never sleeps and customers can place orders any time. But it is not without challenges as creative online and digital marketing is constantly required to maintain a cyber presence.”
William maintains a simple philosophy of raising the bar in everything that he creates, and wants his products to be unique. “The flavours must fuse and textures must complement.” For instance, most kueh producers use plain or rice flours. William chooses to use premium gluten-free brown rice flour that has higher protein and fibre, and lower GI (Glycemic Index). “It costs us more, but I think it’s worth it.” All the products are also free of pork, lard, MSG and preservatives.
Furthermore, he upped the game by introducing flavours that are uncommon and interesting. For instance, Radish and Otah, Radish and Carrot (with chunks of radish and minced carrot), Chestnuts (dried chestnuts and crunchy water chestnuts), Turnip and Sweet Potatoes, and Pumpkin and Yam. There’s also Truffle Mushrooms and Spinach, created for vegans to enjoy.
He adds, “Most of such kueh sold these days are full of flour and lacking in ingredients. We want to ensure that our customers get to taste the ingredients and get the full value for their purchases. So we pack all our kueh (except the vegan one) with more dried shrimps, dried mushrooms, dried chicken sausages, minced chicken along with the various types of vegetables.”
He believes it is highly important to get the younger generation to enjoy kueh. “We are dedicated to preserving heritage foods and cuisines so that our younger generation can appreciate the legacy of our Chinese roots. We don’t want them to think that these are foods that only appeal to their parents, grandparents and the senior community! Hence the new flavours, modern packaging and branding.” According to him, Hokkien Lang Kueh Co. was created as an online platform to share and sell great tasting products. Besides offering kueh, other food items in the pipeline include pastries, confectionery, cookies etc.
For more information, visit hokkienlangkueh.com
Mrs Kueh was kick-started three years ago by chef consultant Jeremy Nguee and his mother, Maureen. Jeremy says that the objective wasn’t just about starting a kueh company. “My entire food career in the last 10 years has been centred around trying to find ways to promote our heritage cuisine. The difference with how I do it is that I focus on building platforms that increase the willingness to pay for the products.” For him, there should be a commercial sustainability and viability to such small food businesses. Hence Mrs Kueh introduced pricing that’s higher than standard local kueh prices.
“When we started Mrs Kueh, we tried to find a way to make kueh more relevant to today’s consumer and make it appealing to people who want to learn more about Singapore culture,” says Jeremy who also founded Batu Lesung Spice company that sells curry paste and sambal, and gourmet caterer Preparazzi.
He continues, “Kueh has a very different texture that people are not trending towards. Basically, people want fluffy, soft, very light and creamy texture. But a lot of kuehs are stodgy, chewy and more hearty. In the early days, kuehs were meant to tease your palate or fill the gaps between your meal times. So that’s why they were more filling.” Based on this premise, Maureen tried to make a kueh salat, in which the rice is fluffy and the grains are not mashed together. “It doesn’t have a stodgy taste, and it has a very rich and fragrant coconut taste, yet is not overwhelming,” shares Jeremy.
The technique was independently researched and developed by Maureen and her friends. “She and I are volunteers of the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) cooks committee. Every year, we try to develop and research recipes, a lot of which are heirloom, to put into an annual recipe calendar that we sell for fund raising. After numerous attempts, probably about 100 variations, my mum came upon this method and technique of making kueh salat. We then experimented with other kueh that our family loves to eat. Kueh kosui and bengka ubi came next. We also have traditional fruit cake and brandy almond sugee cake,” shares Jeremy.
Maureen also recently launched sweet potato ondeh ondeh. Her version is slightly larger so that the keuh can contain more gula Melaka filling. She also uses Okinawan purple sweet potato which has more consistent water content and concentrated flavour. She recently also introduced puteri ayu or steamed mini coconut bundt cake. “It is filled with fresh kaya, which is not cooked to a very high degree, and is almost like a light custard,” says Jeremy. All these products are sold online, and the small kueh shop at YWCA serves as a pick up point.
Jeremy continues, “Ultimately all these things that we do is to try to push the envelope and find out what the frontiers are – on how we envision what a heritage cuisine looks like. So when we say something is traditional, what does that refer to? If we say that we cannot change [the recipe], does it mean there’s no space for creativity? We’re hoping to encourage other young chefs who are trying their hand at making kueh – to be less concerned as to what people will think is authentic or original. But rather come up with a style that you can be proud of and that they enjoy making. This is the goal of Mrs Kueh.”
For more information, visit https://mrskueh.com/