The lunar new year is around the corner, which means lots of celebrations (which go for 15 days), primarily through eating and drinking with family and friends.
Leading up to lunar new year, treats are often shared, and this post is dedicated to my favourite Hokkien festive treats of cakes and cookies.
I have three favourites, although there are many more – kueh kapit, pineapple tarts and kueh bangkit.
Kueh kapit are delicate wafers that are made from a very thin batter made of coconut milk, rice and tapioca flour, sugar and eggs, that is poured onto cast-iron moulds – etched with graphic and symbolic representations of flowers, birds or animals – and then baked over charcoal.
I used to make them with my family when I was very young. My grandmother, the expert who would patiently sit over the charcoal with the cast-iron moulds, would pour the batter to make sure the entire mould was evenly coated and check again and again to get just the right amount of colour on the kueh – too light meant the batter was not cooked properly, too dark meant the biscuit would be bitter. Once the batter was cooked she would quickly remove them from the still-hot moulds (she had chef fingers and didn’t seem to ever burn her fingers on the hot iron) and place them on a plate and then get back to battering the mould to make the next biscuit. Then it was my sister’s and my turn to work quickly while the crepe was still pliable, folding the round crepe into a triangular fan shape. (We also got to eat the “mistakes” heehee). It was time consuming and labour intensive, and I have very fond memories of the family bonding while we made these.
Kueh kapit are also called Love Letters, and the history of these is that they were a way for lovers to communicate in olden times – the edible quality of the messages ensured the absence of proof and consumption of the heartfelt message was also seen as a sign that the lover’s words had been taken to heart.
The origins of pineapple tarts is not as poetic as kueh kapit – pineapple in hokkien is ong lai, which literally translated is “prosperity has come”, and serving and eating pineapple tarts is thought to bring good luck and prosperity to the house. Fresh pineapple is grated and slowly cooked over a low heat until it all the sugars have caramelised. This mixture is then traditionally placed on top of a medallion of butter pastry. Variations have come about where the pineapple is completely encased in pastry – this is the favourite in our house because I think the pastry seems to melt on your tongue before you get to the almost chewy pineapple.
Kueh bangkit – tapioca cookies – are traditional nonya cookies and their history is hard to find. From what I can gather, they were originally used for alter offerings for the ancestors and/or for the departed to spend in their next life, and hence were made in the shape of the currency of ancient China. Today they are made in various animal or floral shapes with their own symbolic meaning such as goldfish (prosperity), butterflies (afterlife), peonies (faith) and chrysanthemums (fortune). Each cookie traditionally was marked with a red dot, which I would love to know the meaning of, so please, if you know, post the answer in the comments section.
Made from tapioca flour, eggs and coconut milk they are sweet bite-sized morsels that bursts into dry powdery bits when bitten and then immediately melt in your mouth. The perfect kuih bangkit has to be dry and crispy and light as a feather and almost ‘hollow’ sounding when you tap it. Apparently horrendously difficult to perfect, I am quite happy to buy ones that someone has slaved over to make.
Actually, all three of these, as well as most Chinese New Year treats, are all time consuming and very fiddly to make. I suppose from my experience from long ago with the kueh kapit, the idea is that it is not just about the eating of the treats, but it’s time spent as a family making them and promoting family unity for the lunar new year. More to come on other food around the new year. Gong xi fa cai !