Tag Archive | Baking

Two Generations of Perfection

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A jar of kok zai.

Every Chinese New Year, my mother will transform the house into a pastry factory. Plastic boxes of deep orange pineapple paste would line the shelves of the fridge, stacked high in preparation to be turned into thousands of pineapple tarts. For afternoons on end, she would sit in the living room over trays of shortcrust dough, meticulously wrapping them over the pineapple paste into little balls to be coated with brushstrokes of egg yolk. One of the things that excites me about Chinese New Year is the array of special foods that only appear at this time of year, and my mother is one of the few that still keep alive the practice of making their own New Year treats from scratch.

Now, it’s easy to find racks of kueh bangkit (crumbly flower-shaped coconut biscuits), kueh bahulu (oblong fluffy golden-brown cakes) and tiny sugee cakes in any local supermarket leading up to the occassion. However, there was a time when these special goodies were mostly produced by individuals and given out to loved ones. My father recounts a time when his family used to make their own ‘love letters’ – thin egg rolls curled into slender tubes – as a family operation, with brothers and cousins involved in specific steps of the process. “When I got old enough, I was upgraded from mould-pressing to rolling,” he’d once proudly told us, referring to the different stages of production when the batter is poured into a hot iron mould to solidify before being rolled into its characteristic shape. The direct precursor to my mother’s own baking tradition, though, would have to be the far more painstaking process my grandmother used to go through to make kok zai every year.

“Ah Ma used to make them to give to people,” she had explained. A New Year snack that is a signature of the Cantonese community, kok zai are puff pastries that vaguely resemble curry puffs but are filled with candied peanuts instead. I have never tried them due to my allergies, but I found them tempting regardless. “Last time me, Aunt Anne, Aunt Eileen and Ah Ma used to make it together. Ah Ma would scold all of us for not folding it properly, because then the dough will come apart when you fry it. The peanuts will float to the surface, and you know when you burn sugar it becomes black, so the kok zai will also end up having black spots.”

“Aunt Anne used to be in charge of rolling the dough. She used to roll it until her arms ache like crazy. At the time we had no roller, so you know what we use? Glass bottle. We didn’t have a food processor back then so we just use all these things lying around the house. We would roll and roll and roll. Then we had to cut the dough out; didn’t have cookie cutters so we used glass cups to make circular shapes. Then we would peel the groundnut and blow the shell off while Ah Ma mixed the dough. No mixer, so she used her hands as the mixer. She’ll add flour, eggs, something-else-I-don’t-know, and mix the dough like she was washing clothes. It’s very thick so she had to pull very hard. Then after that, Ah Ma would fry everything. It’s very tasty, because the peanuts have a nice smell when you fry them, plus the sugar makes it so fragrant.”

Thankfully, the advent of kitchen technology has made the process of baking New Year treats a lot less arduous. Nevertheless, my mother still insists on making her own pineapple paste, and she would sit on the kitchen floor with a massive cleaver to skin fresh pineapples. Occassionally they would result in nasty cuts, but more often in hours of hard work and waves of exhaustion. She would rarely allow me to help her with rolling the dough for the tarts, because every tart has to be exactly the same size and shape. Having vastly expanded her baking repertoire to include cakes, jellies, macarons and even fondant art, her efforts have only multiplied as she applies the same rigour to various other kinds of food. This year, she has made four massive carp out of coconut jelly. Each one of them is coloured with different shades of orange to make it look three-dimensional and strips of coconut flesh set in patterns within its body.

The types of snacks my family bakes have changed with time. My grandmother stopped making her own kok zai after my grandfather’s death four decades ago, and there might be a time when my mother will stop making her own tarts too. But what has, and will continue to remain, a time-honoured tradition will be that of perfection. My mother applies the same merciless precision to the shape of her tarts as my grandmother did to the folds of each of her puff pastries. And it is a mercilessness born for the love of the craft, of tradition, and of the friends and family whose stomachs these treats would go on to warm.

I doubt I will ever be able to bake half as well as my mother or grandmother. My fingers are far too clumsy for the dextrous cuts my mother makes in each lump of pastry that she will turn into lively hedeghog-shaped tarts. Neither are they nimble enough to make the miniscule, neat, regular folds that characterise my grandmother’s kok zai. Yet it is my aim to preserve these practices however I can. Whatever my expression of ‘perfection’ will be, I hope that one day I will be carry on the spirit in which these pastries will painfully and lovingly made.

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Christmas at the Open Farm Community Market

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The first time I visited the Open Farm Community (OFC) Market last year, vendors were selling their wares out of the boots of their cars. The informal, leisurely atmosphere hadn’t diminished when I visited again–though the cars were this time replaced by multi-coloured tents and an entirely new variety of home-grown goods on the 3rd of December for the market’s Christmas edition. Despite the Open Farm Community being tucked away beyond a swathe of trees along Minden Road, it had managed to attract a sizeable crowd, some even with families in tow to enjoy this lively collection of independent stallholders.

Besides two of the OFC’s gardeners having a stall on-site selling gardening tools, the regular fixtures of other small stallholders selling locally-grown vegetables, seafood and other natural goods was testament to the site’s goal to promote the incorporation of sustainable living into an urban landscape. “Most of the food we grow goes to the kitchen,” one of the gardeners told me, referring to the restaurant standing next to the vegetable garden on the grounds. Though space and volunteering constraints limits the amount of food that can be grown for the kitchens, the gardeners are hoping to expand their operations. “We also have five chickens,” he added. “We got them four months ago, just to run around and keep the soil fertile.” 

But before I would visit the grounds’ resident poultry, I decided to explore the other goods on offer. In the spirit of community, the market was also a place where small business-owners could advertise their wares with more conviviality than competition. Tall white racks stood heavily-laden with leafy greens and seed packs. Two guys selling mead (flavoured with hops or navel oranges) hawked their goods in between a woman selling thick colourful cubes of artisanal marshmallows, and a couple with dainty pastries for display (the first offering that caught my eye was their ‘Brinjal Cake’–an odd ingredient for a dessert!). A beekeeper invited me to come closer to observe sting-less (and two sting-bearing) bees flitting around tubes of honey made from trees in the Malaysian rainforest: ranging from light amber (cinnamon) to a deep golden-brown (tea tree), from sugary-sweet to mildly tangy.

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A pair of Apis cerana attracted to the scent of their own honey at the Nutrinest stall. One of the staff, Xavier, gave me handy tips on how best to photograph them. “I also have an interest in photography”, he explained.

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A small showcase of the variety of products that can be made from the hard work of a bee and the bounties of tropical rainforest trees. Xavier explained that they took care to ensure the bees produced honey in an environment that had not been poluted by herbicides or agrochemicals.

 

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A corkboard displays the variety of foods that can be spiced up by the addition of nut butter, from muesli to milkshakes. “We tried making all of these ourselves,” the owner, Ming, said. Unable to sample any of his goods due to my nut allergy, we settled for a conversation instead. “The best thing is to do something you like. If you want to be a music composer, you know that you might not be earning a lot of salary. But there are composers out there who can become famous, like Liang Wenfu.”

I threaded my way among them, holding back the temptation to buy everything I saw, to find out what motivated some of the stall-owners to venture into the niche position of selling home-made artisanal goods. I couldn’t resist stopping by when I saw Wholesome Paws’ doggie treats, enamoured by the unique flavour combinations (their dog cookies were made of gazpacho flour, banana and coconut, among other ingredients).

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“The three dogs on the packaging are actually my own dogs. The black one is the one with the yeast problem. I picked her up from Tuas. She has only three legs. But apart from her allergies, she’s doing okay. I adopted the other two from SOSD (Save Our Street Dogs) as puppies, but not the black one. Human’s intestines are like,” and here the owner made a squiggly gesture with one finger, “but dogs’ intestines are straight, so they can’t really digest gluten well. My grandmother used to feed him bread all the time–eat one bite, then throw–until one day we noticed he started to smell. I ended up starting the bakery because my dogs can’t eat the commercially-produced treats.”

Actually, apart from the allergies, I don’t think strays are particularly unpredictable. The allergies are because they didn’t get enough nutrition from their mothers, as puppies. It’s just like the difference between you and me. There are many different dogs at the shelter. Of course there will be one or two that have some trauma or sheng jing bing (Chinese slang for ‘mental problem’) but most of them are okay.”

By the time I’d traversed most of the shops, the mid-noon sun had begun to wear on me. The last stall I stopped by was run by a young woman selling coconut water concoctions, gaily coloured with various tropical fruits and flowers. The storefront itself was a chromatic array of glass bottles, which were mixed and matched to produce equally psychedelic drinks. Though the vivid indigo of their blue pea flower flavour was tempting, I opted for the owner’s personal recommendation of rose-and-dragonfruit. The watery crunch of dragonfruit flesh, coupled with the snap of minute dragonfruit seeds and the subtle fragrance of rose petals dropped into a cup of cold coconut water, made for a surprisingly refreshing combination.

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“This is the first time we’re trying this,” she said. “We wanted to try something new. You can normally find us at Maxwell Road Food Centre.” 

At this point, my attention was diverted to a squirming black bunch of fur tethered to the edge of the stall with a leash. “His name is Bubba! He’s ten weeks old.” Though, she also admitted, she found Rottweilers adorable. What was stopping her from getting one, I asked? She giggled and pointed at Bubba.

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Bubba amid a crowd of admirers.

And before I left, I crept round to the back of the garden to check on the aforementioned chickens in the coop. There were three massive roosters and a pair of hens, one of whom was already sitting on a clutch of eggs. I couldn’t help but feel a burst of excitement at the newest additions to the garden, and maybe the thought of newer additions to come once those eggs hatched into tiny chicks.

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At the end of the day, I came home trudging under the weight of two glass bottles of coconut smoothie and a bag of dog treats, the aromas of dragonfruit and rose still pleasantly tingling on my palate. The murmur of friendly chatter died away behind me, and I pondered how this market didn’t just gather a group of business-owners, but also a chance to partake of a common philosophy for the spirit of an open community.