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Why Chefs Pang Kok Keong and Daniel Tay are rolling out local kueh for the first time

Two top Singaporean chefs who were trained in French pastry bring back the tradition of kueh.

Foodies can have a taste of special local treats hand-crafted by chefs Pang Kok Keong and Daniel Tay at this year’s Kueh Appreciation Day. Organised by Slow Food (Singapore) and held in conjunction with Singapore Food Festival, the event happens on 24 July 2016 from 10am to 6pm at ToTT Store (Dunearn Road).

Pang, chef-owner of Antoinette, pays homage to his Hakka heritage and will be introducing snacks such as steamed vegetable kueh, leek kueh, and abacus seeds during this event. The well-established pastry chef has been actively researching and testing traditional Hakka food recipes for the past five years.

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Chef Pang Kok Keong (left) and Chef Daniel Tay will showcase their creations at Kueh Appreciation Day 2016, organised by Slow Food Singapore.

Meanwhile, Tay, founder of Cat & The Fiddle and Old Seng Choong, will demonstrate his family’s Teochew yam cake, which will be sold alongside other traditional favourites from Old Seng Choong. Tay started this online food business as a tribute to his late father, who was an experienced baker and confectioner. The venture is named after the well-loved Seng Choong Confectionery, which was established in 1965 and run by Tay’s parents until its closure in 1996.

We caught up with the chefs to find out more about the importance of going back to their roots.

Q: Tell us more about the type of kueh that you used to eat when you were younger, and what will you be showcasing at Kueh Appreciation Day?

Pang: One of the Hakka kuehs that I will make has a filling of leek, tau kwa, garlic, and dried shrimps.  My mother used to make it when I was very young, and she learnt it from her grandmother. I will also introduce a vegetable-based kueh filled with cabbage, tang hoon, shitake mushroom, black fungus, minced pork and dried shrimps. The skin is made of rice flour and tapioca starch. Although Hakka kueh hasn’t been popularised in Singapore, you can find these types of kuehs in Malaysia and Taiwan.

Tay: I’m Hokkien and my mother is Teochew. I’m going to prepare a Teochew yam cake that my mum used to make. It’s different from what you can buy outside, which usually has a lot of starch and very little yam. We include a lot of yam in our recipe. After the kueh is steamed, it is pan-fried for more aroma. My grandmother actually added peanuts and a lot of pepper in her recipe.

Yam Cake

Q: How did you learn how to make kueh, and did your families enjoy your recipes?

Tay: To learn how to make this yam cake, I had one lesson with my mother many years ago. When I went to Shanghai for a visit about five years back, I learnt from a dim sum master how to make his version of yam cake. Later, I married both techniques together. When my mum tried my recipe, she loved it.

Pang:  To me, the flavour of Hakka cuisine is very rustic and heavily seasoned. It’s not something that we can replicate easily because you need to have tasted it before to understand what Hakka flavours are about. When I made this kueh, everything was from memory. I tried to get a base recipe and then I tested it. I asked my mum to show me the method, although she hasn’t made the kueh for years. Based on trial and error, I kept making it until it was satisfactory. My mum gave me thumbs up for my effort.

Chef Pang's Hakka Snacks

Q: You were trained in French techniques. What were the interesting elements you discovered when making Chinese kueh?

Pang: Cake and bread flours are used in French pastry. Glutinous rice flour and tapioca starch are mostly used in kueh making. When I started to make kueh, I found these different starches and flours very intriguing. It’s a whole new world, and that’s why it’s so interesting. For example, why do you need to pour boiling water into the flour to form the dough, and steam it – you don’t use these techniques for western food.

Q: How important is it for you to bring back or promote this heritage food?

Pang: During the last few years, I started to ask myself why I’m cooking other people’s heritage food instead of my own. It might have something to do with my age, and my maturity. If I want to leave a legacy, I would rather leave a legacy of my own heritage than somebody else’s. I would like my kids and the younger generation to know more about local kueh. You can find a lot of reading material and information on other cuisines – but information on Hakka food seems to be very rare. That’s why I wanted to start documenting them. I’ve been testing a lot of Hakka recipes too, such as salt baked chicken, yellow ginger poached chicken, and mei cai kou rou (pork belly with preserved mustard greens).

Tay: This is one of the most important chapters of my life. I believe that I should be an expert in doing what I do best – that is in my own culture’s product. And I shouldn’t always look to the West for answers. It’s good to encourage the young on the importance of our heritage and to understand our own culture first.

 Q: With so many trendy bakeries and food concepts being launched, do you feel that the younger generation still appreciates the tradition of kueh?

Tay: Definitely. I think they will appreciate and love these local flavours. Even my kids love the yam cake.

Pang: Singaporeans are always looking for something new to try. It’s important for us to embrace our roots, and I think food is a good vehicle for one to understand their heritage. We should definitely encourage the young – if not they will be lost in the fast food generation.

For more information on Kueh Appreciation Day and the Kueh Demonstration Classes, visit: www.slowfood.sg/kueh-appreciation-day-2016