Ang Ku Kueh (‘Red Tortoise’ Pastry)
The subject of ‘red turtle cake’ never fails to raise a laugh with friends and family back in Singapore when I retell amusing stories of how my white Australian friends would recoil in horror when I deliberately serve up this controversial dessert at morning tea.
In addition to reassuring my every petrified guest that no turtles were harmed in the making of this delicious traditional chinese steamed cake (we call little steamed desserts ‘kueh’), I quite relish trying to explain what it really is to their surprise, amusement and enlightenment. It kind of lends me some sort of exotic mystique as a former restaurant Masterchef.
Ang Ku Kueh is made by moulding glutinous rice flour pastry into a mould resembling the back of a tortoise shell. There are usually two kinds of fillings when you bite into the soft, delicate, sticky, chewy texture of the steamed cake: crushed peanuts with sugar or sweetened mung bean paste.
The tortoise is portrayed in Chinese folklores and legends as a representation of longevity and the Chinese people have long loved its association with good fortune and prosperity, which explains why this sweet dessert is a cultural favourite on tables during celebrations such as weddings, a newborn baby’s first month anniversary, Chinese New Year, milestone birthdays especially for the elderly and the like. These days Ang Ku Kueh is widely sold in pastry shops, bakeries, even at market stalls and kiosks within shopping malls in Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, China)and one no longer has to hang around for the right occasion to enjoy them.
Which is why in 2009 when I proudly distributed ‘Ang Ku Kueh’ to my friends in Brisbane to mark newborn baby B’s first month (‘Full Month’ or ‘Moon Yut’)celebrations together with 2 chocolate eggs in a ‘favour bag’ inclusive of an announcement note complete with the significance of her Chinese name, many were astounded by this unexpected gesture to preserve an age-old tradition. So was I trying to make restitiution for another collateral damage of cultural modernisation? I did balk at hearing how bakery vouchers have now conveniently replaced giving out Ang Ku Kueh and other traditional cakes to friends and family as a birth announcement.
The argument was that people could select what they actually preferred and at their own time. My ears rang from the mere frivolity of this suggestion–I mean, imagine others giving out deli vouchers at Christmas instead of the traditional Christmas turkey roast, ditto the Christmas puddings and Christmas cookies–yes why not get ’em all replaced with pattiserie vouchers! Granny will just hang up her apron this year! Unbelievable, isn’t it. There are just some traditions worth preserving and treasuring. And our culture is one of them, regardless of progress in technology, education and lifestyle.
It is that thought that had me picturing myself hovering picket signs that screamed ‘BRING BACK ANG KU KUEH’, with other like-minded sensible people in a march. I was all ready to become a ‘voucher-burning-culturist’ (borrowed from ‘bra-burning feminist’).
While migration had meant some of us had physically forsaken our birthplace, we should not be quite so ready to forsake our roots or culture. What fun would it be if we all ate the same food all over the world? Let’s embrace multiculturalism and continue to share our melting pot. Why let our legacies of great traditional cultural recipes become elbowed out by modernisation! My kids will have no choice but to learn how to make this kueh. I insist on it!
Here’s my favourite Ang Ku Kueh recipe. The skin is tricky. Keep practicing at being as delicate as you can with your fingers.Most of all, please keep it going. For all our sakes.
Ang Ku Kueh Recipe
Ingredients for KUEH SKIN:
120g glutinous rice flour
150g sweet potatoes–steamed and mashed while hot, skins removed
1 T sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 T vegetable oil
1/4 C very hot water to seal
Other materials required:
1 Ang Ku Kueh mould
Banana leaves/dried lotus leaves soaked and cut into mould size/ if you can’t find any of these,
use baking or parchment paper
Ang Ku Kueh Filling recipe
200g crushed peanuts
100g castor sugar, or less according to taste
1/2 tsp salt
water to mix into a thick dry paste
MUNG BEAN FILLING:
150g dried mung beans (boil till split and mash while hot)
100g castor sugar
1/2 tsp salt
120ml pandan juice
1. Steam split green peas and blend immediately/ mix up peanut paste filling
2. Add glutinous flour, sweet potato puree, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Whisk or beat (add water to stop it getting overly dry)well to make a soft pliable dough. Add cooking oil a little at each time. Ensure that the dough is not sticky to the touch.
3. Roll the dough into a long log and divide into 12 equal pieces.
4. Roll each piece into a ball and flatten each piece. Insert filling of preference into centre and seal up ball.
5. Dust mould with excess flour and carefully shape and press ball of dough into the mould.
6. With a few light taps to the side of your hand, tap out the sough and place onto leaf/baking paper cut to size.
7. Arrange on a steamer and steam on low for about 5 minutes. Uncover the steamer and steam kueh, this time uncovered for another 3 minutes till cooked fully.