Ang ku kueh or red tortoise cakes are shaped to look like tortoise shells with the Chinese character “shou” or “longevity” imprinted in the centre. They are often used as temple offerings particularly during Hungry Ghost and Ching Ming Festivals (early April). It is also presented as an auspicious gift during a baby’s full month celebration.
A well-made kueh is soft and pleasantly chewy, with a smooth, delicate skin made of glutinous rice flour. Popular fillings can range from traditional sweet mung bean and peanut to yam and coconut. “For homemade ang ku kueh, the trickiest part is judging how much water to incorporate into the dough for the skin, as this depends partly on the rice flour and other starches used, the ambient humidity, and so on. The goal is a smooth and malleable dough that will retain the details of the ang ku kueh mould,” shares Christopher Tan, cookbook author, cooking instructor, and executive committee member of Slow Food Singapore.
To have a bite of this sweet favourite, alongside a taste of yesteryear, here are three places that still sells hand-crafted ang ku kueh in Singapore:
Ji Xiang Confectionery is possibly the only food business in Singapore that specialises in handmade ang ku kueh. Visit this store at Everton Park and you will see a large space adjacent to the main store. Here, several kueh makers are expertly rolling out different types of filling into balls and shaping the soft kueh using pink coloured plastic moulds. To prevent any form of “piracy”, the Ji Xiang name is specially carved out by a mahjong tile maker, and secured in the centre of the mould.
“We continue to hand-craft our kueh because we can get thinner and more delicate skin that way. If machines are used, you can’t control the skin’s thickness,” says founder Toh Poh Seek.
In 1988, Toh officially launched his shop at Everton Park. He started his home business in 1985, when the economy was in a downturn. Toh, a former ship welder, and his wife Toh Bong Yeo decided to make ang ku kueh and sell them at her mother’s provision shop. In the early days, their entire living room was filled with multiple trays of ang ku kueh ready to be sold to regulars. Business soon picked up and the Tohs had to find a more conducive space at Everton Park. The couple have been committed to making this business thrive over the decades. Today, their two sons Kelvin and Jack alongside Jack’s wife, help them run the business.
To maintain the success of this traditional food business, a lot of effort is required. For instance, the mung bean filling is painstakingly steamed, mashed, stir-fried, and then mixed with oil and pandan water. Banana leaves have to be cut, washed and wiped down. And after steaming in large tiered steamers for seven minutes, the kueh needs to be cooled down completely before being packed. “It’s a very tedious job. Furthermore, all the filling is done by hand,” says Toh. Quality, freshness and consistency are important for Ji Xiang. “We buy coconut from Tekka, and source peanuts from a reputable supplier,” shares Toh. “We also make sure that our recipe is not too sweet or oily.”
These days, about 1,000 pieces are sold every day. Toh’s children hope to expand their business in the future when they have the opportunity. In the meantime you can have your ang ku kueh fix at this Everton Park store or the Kueh Appreciation Day at ToTT Store (Dunearn).
01-33, Block 1 Everton Park, Tel: 6223 1631
This small, nondescript corner outfit at Bukit Merah Lane 1 has been around for about 30 years. The shop sells a few types of traditional ang ku kueh – sweet mung bean, salty mung bean, peanut, and yam. The yam version is delicious thanks to its delicate skin and tasty filling with bits of yam that offer a welcome bite. The small-scale production means that items run out quite fast. The best time to go is from late morning till after lunch. If you have the chance, take a peek into the small kitchen and watch the aunties prepare these ang ku kueh and other sweet treats such as kueh ambon, kueh dadar, and Indonesian-style kueh lapis.
#01-138, Block 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Tel: 6271 6996
Also located at Bukit Merah Lane 1 is Poh Cheu, a family-run business. You would see queues forming at this corner coffeeshop stall just before lunch time. Established for almost 30 years, Poh Cheu is one of the few places that continue to make their own kueh by hand. Throughout the day you can spot workers preparing the dough and variety of filling in the small kitchen space behind the counter. The stall offers about 10 different flavours including black sesame, red bean, and peanut. There are other more interesting flavours such as pineapple, green tea and coffee too for those with a more adventurous palate. The ang ku kueh shape is rounder and skin slightly thicker, with a more springy texture. The owners ensure that the products are handmade daily using fresh ingredients. Poh Cheu is also known for their soon kueh.
01-230, Block 127 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Tel: 6276 2287
This story first appeared on The Peak, 2016.
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