Friday, November 25, 2011

An intro to Chwee Kueh, with tips from cookbook author, Wee Eng Hwa

Besides the well known chilli crab, chicken rice and hokkien mee, there are multitudes of lesser known dishes that tourists and non-tourists alike might not be aware of when they first arrive on Singapore’s shores.  Let's first begin with a quick introduction to the delight that is chwee kueh.

I consulted Ms. Wee Eng Hwa, author of the cookbook-cum-biography, Cooking for the President on her advice about chwee kueh.  Having personally tried her homemade chwee kueh, there was no doubt that the vivacious food-enthusiast was the go-to for tips on this dish.

Photo from Wee Eng Hwa's cookbook-cum-biography, Cooking for the President.

Chwee kueh, a steamed rice “water” cake, is of Hokkien origin and a favourite amongst Chinese Singaporeans. Usually eaten at breakfast or as a light snack, the simple dish is available at hawker centres or can be easily made at home.  Wee Eng Hwa tells us about her childhood experiences. “I have happy vivid memories of eating piping-hot fragrant chwee kueh served on a rectangular piece of opeh (a beige-coloured parchment) and using a lidi (a stick of brown dried rib of the palm leaf) like a fork. It was sold by itinerant hawkers or at wet market foodstalls,” she recalls.

Her cookbook predominantly comprise Nonya recipes, but she includes chwee kueh to help document and preserve the traditional recipe--because she has found that chwee kueh at foodstalls have changed overtime and now differ in taste and texture from that of a generation ago.

“A good chwee kueh is slightly salted, essential to bring out the taste of the rice flour. The texture is neither firm nor stodgy, but light and supple with some body and tension. It is a question of balancing the “chwee” and the “kueh” elements,” she explains.  And not forgetting the other most important element to chwee kueh, “The savoury topping – chai por - must be aromatic and nicely brown, yet tender with bite, not an indistinguishable dark mess. It may be topped with a little chilli sauce. In the old days, the chilli sauce served was smooth and slightly sweet and sour. Our family likes to spice the cake with a little finely chopped dried red chillies fried in oil.”

The chwee kueh she makes is indeed supple and savoury, so we ask her for some technique tips that make all the difference between in an average versus a good one.  “Speed is of the essence,” she advises, “All the elements making the cakes must be very hot. The hot flour mixture must be poured into the hot moulds as soon as the lid of the hot wok is opened. Once the mixture in the moulds is cooked, turn off the fire and leave the moulds in the open wok to cool completely and set before attempting to serve the cakes.”

Wee Eng Hwa encourages everyone to try their hand at making it, and not to forget that practice makes perfect.  Here is her family chwee kueh recipe from her cookbook, Cooking for the President below.  Let us know if you try this recipe!


CHWEE KUEH, Steamed Rice “Water” Cakes
Recipe from Wee Eng Hwa's cookbook-cum-biography, Cooking for the President. Reproduced with her kind permission.

The success of this popular Hokkien breakfast food depends on the texture of the steamed rice cake and the texture and aroma of the toppings. The cake is soft, light and supple with body, not sticky or stodgy. The neutral-tasting cake is made appetising by the aromatic fried chai por (preserved Chinese white radish) which is tender with bite and also by the fried dried red chillies.
(makes 20)

240ml oil
50g garlic, peel and chop 2mm bits
150g chai por (preserved Chinese white radish), chop 3mm bits and soak 5 minutes
160ml water
20g dried red chillies, soften in hot water and chop 2mm bits
½ tsp salt

Mixture A
200g rice flour
40g tapioca flour
480ml water

Mixture B
480ml boiling water
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp oil
20 chwee kueh metal cups

1.  Fry the chai por. Fry the garlic in 120ml hot oil in a wok over medium-low heat few seconds. Add the chai por and fry until light brown and aromatic. Add the water and simmer over low heat until tender and almost dry, medium brown and intensely aromatic. Do not over-fry to avoid the chai por becoming tough and garlic becoming bitter. Set aside the fried chai por in its oil.

Fry the dried chillies in 120ml hot oil in a wok with the salt over medium-low to low heat until darker red and aromatic. Set aside the fried chillies in the oil.

2.  Make the rice cakes. Steam the chwee kueh cups very hot in a covered wok. Mix Mixture A ingredients and strain into a saucepan. Boil Mixture B ingredients in another saucepan. Add hot Mixture B to Mixture A. Stir quickly to mix well. Uncover the wok and quickly fill the hot cups up to just below the rim. Wipe dry the inner surface of the lid and cover the wok. Steam 15 minutes over medium-low heat until cooked. Cool to set.

3.  Assemble to serve. Re-steam the cakes. Take a cup from the steamer, run a slender spatula along the inside, lift and slide the cake onto a serving plate. Top the cake with 1 teaspoon fried chai por (which may be heated if desired) and ½ teaspoon fried chillies if desired.

4.  Serve the cake hot or at room temperature as a snack. It is particularly suitable for breakfast, but can be served at tea time.

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