Damian D’Silva is trying to explain to you what bolu koku is. We’ve never heard of it, and maybe you haven’t either. Which is the whole point. The heritage chef’s greater mission is to educate Singaporeans about some of the sweeter things in life that we don’t even know exist.
Such as this traditional Eurasian cake that is said to be the precursor of kueh bolu – the tiny, crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy sponge cakes traditionally baked in a special mould over a charcoal fire. Bolu koku, on the other hand, has a sponge base but with grated coconut, brandy and spices that fill the
kitchen with an amazing fragrance.
“Eurasians aren’t just known for making sugee cakes or pang susie,” says Chef D’Silva. “We do a lot of different cakes and kueh such as bolu koku and blueda – which is a Dutch cake that’s like a torte, which uses toddy instead of baking powder to make it rise.”
Chef D’Silva is one of the champions of artisanal recipes who will be demonstrating how to make bolu koku at Kueh Appreciation Day (KAD) on July 28 as part of the Singapore Food Festival. Organised by Slow Food Singapore, the annual event started out in 2015 to draw attention to our local food heritage by spotlighting artisanal kueh makers who have spent years perfecting their craft and keeping their traditions alive.
The kueh makers taking part in the event include old-timers who have been in the business (usually family-run) for decades as well as second or third generation makers; and even young entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses built on family recipes.
They include: Deli Maslina – a rare kueh maker which still wraps its confections like kueh jongkong in traditional leaves – which has been around since the 1980s and is now run by Adibah Ahmad, daughter of founder Maskiah Shariff; Poh Cheu – famous for its ang ku kueh – whose third generation
scion Jerome Ng is at the helm; and newbie Julianah Jahayer, who started Julie Bakes a couple of years ago to make layer cakes incorporating classic kueh flavours as well as traditional kueh following her mother’s recipes.
Christopher Tan, food writer and Slow Food Singapore committee member, says that KAD’s mission statement is simply that “kueh is a valuable, unique part of our local food heritage, and we should make it, enjoy it, and support our local kueh-makers.”
While he feels that locals still appreciate kueh as part of their culture, Singapore’s appetite for global food trends is so strong, it tends to be overlooked in favour of “jiggly Castella cakes, bespoke burgers and celebrity chefs”.
Coincidentally, there was another kueh event recently called The Kueh Kueh Symposium, which made its debut during the Singapore Food Festival as well.
Co-organised by chef and food entrepreneur Jeremy Nguee and held at the Straits Clan, it featured talks by artisans as well as sales of traditional snacks. The mission was similar – to create a conversation and more awareness of heritage food.
“I feel a renewed sense of urgency and growing pride among young people,” says Chef Nguee who also has a business, Mrs Kueh, that sells kueh sarlat made by his mother.
“As they travel and meet people from other cultures, they’re more aware of what they have that others don’t. Kueh is a big part of our heritage that ties all Singaporeans together, regardless of race.”
Mr Tan concurs. At a recent Teochew kueh-making demonstration, “there were a few young people interested in learning to make traditional kueh that they had been eating all their lives but didn’t know how to make properly. So perhaps there’s hope.”
Kueh Appreciation Day takes place on July 28 from 10am to 4pm at OUE Social Kitchen, #03-02/03 Downtown Gallery, 6A Shenton Way. Admission is free but workshops are priced at S$40 each. For details go to www.slowfood.sg/kueh-appreciation-day
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Slow Food Singapore & Kueh Kueh Symposium