European pastries come and go — it might be cheesecake today, fruit tarts tomorrow; but kueh is forever. While there might be bakeries around every corner slinging out world-class French pastries, kueh is a little harder to find — which makes the act of making your own all the more special.
Enter The Way of Kueh, a 272-page tome from well-known food writer, historian, and culinary instructor Christopher Tan. Comprising 98 meticulously researched and tested recipes featuring kueh from every ethnicity, the book also features photographs styled and taken by Tan – from relatively simple endeavours like kueh bingka (a baked tapioca kueh), to the significantly more confounding, but also much more richly rewarding (in terms of flavour and personal edification) kueh ambon.
We speak to Tan about the cookbook.
How long did it take for you to put the book together including research and testing?
The idea began crystallising and the initial research started around 2015. I only started writing, interviewing and recipe-testing in earnest after I I received a Heritage Project Grant from the National Heritage Board in 2017.
Is there a kueh you’re particularly fond of?
Everyone is asking me this, but it’s honestly way too difficult to single one out. I love each of the kueh in the book in a different way and for different reasons: every single kueh has a unique character and charm for which it deserves to be celebrated.
Us moderns are too used to over-condensed, over-filtered recommendations these days –the top 5 this, the top 3 that, the one thing you MUST eat before you die – and this means we may miss out on perfectly wonderful things that never caught the recommender’s eye for whatever reason. This is why I wrote the book – to draw attention to and help raise the status of all kueh.
Which recipe was the hardest to chase down or formulate?
The most challenging recipes were so for different reasons – such as changes in ingredient quality, difficulty in obtaining equipment, and so on – so they can’t really be sensibly compared. Some of the simplest kueh took the longest time to refine, because they had such a short roster of ingredients that nailing the ratios was crucial. I think Kai Tan Koh (steamed sponge cake) took around 20 rounds of refining, Pak Tong Koh (white sugar kueh) took well over 20.
Some of the other recipes I have been tinkering with intermittently over decades, like Kueh Tart and Kueh Ambon. Kueh Cucur I initially fretted about because it looks so fiddly to make, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out how easy it actually was. It took me many months to source proper vintage hand-carved moulds with intricate details for Kueh Koya.
The book is incredibly detailed, do you feel like you have adequately codified kueh?
I would never dare to assert anything so grandiose. One of the central tenets of The Way of Kueh is that kueh and kueh culture have grown out of family life and community life – which means that it takes far more than one person to “codify” it. Kueh is not like a code of law, it is more like a pointillist painting – different folks have different strokes, and all the strokes and colours together make up the whole image, so you have to step back and regard them all.
(Related: Food from the heart at Kin)
What’s the future of kueh?
The future of kueh in Singapore is what we – and by “‘we” I mean all Singaporeans – make of it. I mean this in the most literal sense. Like all heritage foodways, kueh culture will only persist and flourish if we tend it, practise it and celebrate it with passion and thoughtfulness.
The Way of Kueh can be purchased at Epigram Books.