Kueh Tutu: A Sweet Bit Of Heritage


Among the many foods I obsessed over while growing up in Singapore, kueh tutu ranked high on the list.

This two-bite-sized spongy pastry featuring a steamed rice-flour shell filled with either sweet, shredded coconut or minced peanuts was already rapidly disappearing from the hawker scene when I was a child. (“Kueh” means cake or cookie in Malay; “tutu” is derived from the sound of the steamers that hawkers used decades ago to make them.)

Because kueh tutu is best eaten warm and freshly made (they tend to become hard and gummy if made even 20 minutes in advance), hawkers have to create them in small batches on demand. This makes them a rather expensive dessert to sell, given Singaporeans aren’t generally willing to pay more than 30 to 50 cents for one. (That would be about 20 to 35 U.S. cents.)

Even though some kueh tutu stalls have popped up in foodcourts recently, the pastry is still not exactly sold on every street corner these days. So whenever I spot a cart selling them, I drop everything I’m doing to get in line and buy some.

I can easily eat five or 10 of the sweet nubbins at a sitting — I wish I were joking.

On Day One of my current trip to Singapore for book research, while hunting down some roast duck for my grandmother’s dinner in the Ghim Moh neighborhood, the kueh tutu gods were clearly on my side.

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A Malay Madeleine

Here’s something you don’t see every day on an American menu: Kueh Lapis, an eggy, Malay/Indonesian layer cake that’s so time-consuming to make that it’s hard to find in the U.S.

Think of it as the red-velvet cake equivalent of Southeast Asia —
it’s a signature dessert and it’s a pity you don’t see it
more often in American restaurants and bakeries.

Tonight, the Hubbs and I lucked out at a
pre-theater dinner, however — the moment we saw kueh lapis on
the menu at Bali Nusa Indah in Midtown Manhattan, we knew we had to order it. (Note: Other items on the menu were a little disappointing — the nasi goreng
(fried rice), for example, was so bland it brought to mind the less-than-successful
first stabs at fried rice my class-mates made in high school home
economics classes way back when.)

The kueh lapis, however, was perfectly decent — even if it was dressed up for Americans with a scoop of ice-cream and a layer of palm sugar sauce (better known as gula melaka in Malaysia/Singapore).

In Asia, the cake is thinly sliced, sometimes toasted lightly, and eaten on its own. After all, when you consider how tedious the process is, why let other trimmings get in the way of the star of the show? The baking process involves
spreading a thin layer of batter — made with condensed milk, golden syrup and a medley of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom — in the pan, baking it for 10 minutes,
taking it out of the oven, spreading another layer of batter and …
you get the picture. 

That could explain why you don’t see kueh lapis in restaurants in the U.S. more often. But hey, considering the fact that some kueh lapis recipes call for 25 egg yolks, that may not be an entirely bad thing.

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