Tag Archive | Candy

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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A Chinatown Market By Day

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Despite their transient nature, festive bazaars of any sort can always be distinguished every year by their unconscious regularity. There are the same stands of pussy willows, dyed in all sorts of colours, sitting behind pots of spiral-shaped bamboo coils and cut peach and plum tree branches. There is the same roasted-chestnut vendor standing before his glass-panelled roaster, sending the faint aroma of coffee wafting through the crowd. There are the same intricate red paper cuttings of auspicious Chinese characters, the same fabric plushies of zodiac animals, the same snaking queues for sweetmeats (better known by its Hokkien name bak kwa).

And then there are the details that you notice only after having regularly set foot along the same streets at the same time of year. Along Sago Street this afternoon, I witnessed the vendors kick into high gear at an unexpected visit. “The health department is here,” one old woman hollered, as men bustled out from behind their storefronts to take down the rope that they had used to extend the roof shelters over their stalls. I saw a woman peek out from under a massive blue tarp that had been pulled down from the eaves, iPhone pressed to ear as she kept watch down the street. I’d also begun noticing the gaggles of teenage students on school excursions traipsing behind teachers and tour guides. “I’m going to scare him to death,” one boy chuckled mischievously in Mandarin as he waved a wooden snake in a plastic bag. And then there were the tour groups: American, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, standing out with their orderly clustering compared to the stream of local pedestrians who thread down the busy lanes with a single-minded focus.

It never gets old to me. Chinese New Year has always been one of the most special times of the year to me. Even as a young adult, I always find a certain childish glee in surveying rows of deep brown niangao at the Tai Chong Kok bakery, or going to the same Indonesian bamboo cake vendor year after year to enjoy the fluffy white rice flour tubes stuffed with warm palm sugar and buried in sweet coconut flakes and orange sugar. Like what Christmas does to many in other corners of the world, the colours and music and lively bustle that Chinese New Year brings to Singapore always excites me. And the riotous energy (and, sometimes, idiosyncrasies) of the Chinatown bazaars never fails to remind me of that.

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One of the many stalls selling Taiwanese fruit jellies. I’ve noticed that many of them seem to be manned by vigorous-looking young men.

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The fire truck that had earlier caused a commotion among the vendors.

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A selection of dried fruit slices, often given out as candy at festive tables.

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A stall selling ‘bird’s nest water’, an iced drink made with fragments of the nest of edible-nest swiftlets. Bird’s nest is widely consumed as a tonic among the Chinese community.

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The stall from which we get our favourite Indonesian bamboo cakes.

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Rows of niangao at Tai Chong Kok’s Chinatown premises. As the words for ‘sticky’ (referring to the cake’s texture, being made of glutinous rice) and ‘year’ are homophones in Chinese, these cakes are eaten during the New Year to represent a wish for a fortunate year ahead.

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Christmas, and Ghosts of the Past

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This year, my family decided to stage an old-school Christmas party. My mother dug out the 20-year-old bottles of Coke she’d tucked away in cold storage (yes, the Coke had been in the bottles that long). My sister bought some tiffin carriers – traditionally used to carry and store food for picnics – home from Thailand, laying them next to our old and slightly greyed blue-and-white porcelain rice bowls. We went out buying haw flakes, iced gems, White Rabbit candy, and ice pops (segmented plastic tubes filled with flavoured ice); all popular retro snacks in Singapore, topped off with a small pack of sour dried plums which are a mainstay of so many traditional candy stores.

As we were decorating, it occurred to me that I hadn’t known of many other peoples who cherish the past with as much vigour as Singaporeans. The Christmas party theme was a blast, mainly for the fact that it provided the adults with a much-adored blast from the past. There are even some of the young (myself included) who lament the passing of old sights and tastes from the past half-century, attesting to the breakneck pace of development, which has benefitted our country and also left it with a craving for simpler times past. Everywhere, nostalgia appears to be a prime sticking point in local discourse, even more so than in other developed countries. It explains the main thrust of marketing strategies for food outlet chains and tourist attractions, the proliferation of shops selling 1950s-Singapore-themed merchandise, and the fondness with which locals search out the shops selling their favourite pig’s ear biscuits or tutu kueh before they vanish forever.

Am I clinging on to the past too much sometimes, I wonder. And yet, there is a charm and a beauty to things from the past that can’t seem to be replicated by their modern counterparts. Perhaps it was their origin in an era where we all had more time to stop and smell the roses. But for now I shall continue to search down and honour the fast-vanishing landmarks, traditions and material culture of this island. Even if they don’t appear to be as relevant to our collective urban consciousness today, they can still provide a crystallised window into a remarkably different side of the island.

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A Mason jar filled with White Rabbit milk candy: a sweet milk-flavoured treat wrapped in a layer of edible rice paper and then in its characteristic plastic outer covering. Behind it is a jar of iced gems, which are small round biscuits each topped with a streak of coloured sugar.

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Another jar of haw flakes – little round discs made out of dried hawthorn fruit.

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An assortment of different types of tiffin carriers. The tall one in the middle was used as a thermos, while the red and green ones to the right are layered with different circular compartments for food.