Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Singapore active senior food, travel & lifestyle diary

History & Guide to Different Types of Nyonya Kueh

Nyonya kueh are bite size cakes, sweets and snacks which are a big part of Peranakan cuisine. Nyonya kueh are often colourful and always addictively delicious. There are over a hundred varieties - this post trace their origins and highlight a selection of the most popular ones.

Origins of Peranakans and their Cuisine

The earliest Chinese in the Malay peninsula and archipelago (today's Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Thailand) arrived as early as the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD). They were sojourners and traders who came in junks with the Northeast Monsoon during the winter. Among them were pilgrim monks on their way to India in search of Buddhist scriptures and traders who came for spices, aromatic wood, and hornbill casques (ivory) in the fabled spice islands.

In the days of sail, traders had to wait for the next Southwest Monsoon (summer) to take them and their goods back to China. During the interim six months, traders intermingled with and also married locals. The local wives took care of the family and business while their Chinese husbands returned to Guangdong and Fujian province to sell spices and come back with silk and porcelain. 

(The spices would take the overland Silk Road from southern China to Europe where they fetch astronomic prices. The Silk Road of legend operated from around 100 BC till around 1500 when the Europeans found the sea route to the spice islands.)

The offsprings of Chinese trader and local marriages are known as Peranakan which means "local born" in Malay. Males of known as Baba and ladies are addressed as Nyonya.

Peranakan communities sprouted in sea ports around the Malay peninsula and archipelago (Java & Sumatra). The best known and perhaps largest was in Malacca which expanded rapidly early in the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) when imperial China and the Malacca sultanate enjoyed warm trade and political ties.

The Peranakans created a cuisine that reflected the marriage of Chinese and Malay cultures, hence Peranakan cuisine is an eclectic mix of Chinese and Malay culinary traditions.

In Peranakan cuisine, you will see blending of Chinese and Malay ingredients as well as Chinese and Malay cooking techniques. Hence, you will see in Peranakan cuisine, dishes that have its roots in China's Guangdong and Fujian province, as well as from the Malay peninsula and archipelago.

(Peranakan cuisine is sometimes referred to as Nyonya cuisine. On the other hand, kueh is always called Nyonya kueh, never Peranakan kueh.

Traders from India also came to the spice islands and some married locals. The offsprings of Indian Muslim and Malay marriages are known as Jawi Peranakan. The descendants of Hindu Indian and Malay marriages are known as Chetti Melaka as the traders are from Chettinadu. Nyonya kueh refers to the kueh of Chinese Peranakan.)

The same inclusive kaleidoscopic mishmash of Chinese and Malay origin dishes in Peranakan cuisine is well reflected in Nyonya kueh (which is part of Peranakan cuisine).

The word kueh is derived from the Chinese word 粿 which is a generic term that refers to small bites like sweets, cakes and snacks as well as fruits which are known as 
水果. 粿 is pronounced as "kway" in Hokkien and Teochew Chinese. In Singapore, the word is spelt "kueh". In Indonesia, it is "kue" and in Malaysia it is "kuih". In this post, I shall use "kueh".

Kueh, kuih or kue, the art of Nyonya kueh heritage is passed down through the generations and binds people together across time and place. Today, Nyonya kueh is enjoyed by all communities and throughout the world from Singapore, Beijing, London to San Francisco. 

Popular Nyonya Kueh

Ang Ku Kueh
Ang Ku Kueh, commonly listed among Nyonya kueh originates from China's Fujian province where the Chinese side of many Peranakan households came from. 
红龟糕 or ang ku kueh literally means "red tortoise cake". The skin of the cake is made with glutinous rice flour and it is traditionally filled with a paste of mashed boiled mung beans. The cake is pressed into a tortoise shaped mould and cooked by steaming. The traditional bright red colour come from food colouring.

The glutinous rice skin is tender, spongy chewy while the sweet mung bean paste filling is soft. The snack tastes sweet in layers. Ang ku kueh also come filled with different fillings like yam paste, crushed peanut, etc. There are also other colour skin besides the traditional red.

Ang ku kueh is an everyday snack but also used on special occasions like birthday celebrations as well as food offerings in religious rituals. The tortoise is an auspicious animal in Chinese culture symbolising longevity. 

Kueh Bingka Ambon
Kueh Bingka Ambon batter is made with tapioca flour, eggs, coconut milk and yeast. When baked, the yeast leavens, forming the signature tunnels and honeycomb of kueh bingka Ambon.

The sweet Bingka Ambon is one of my favourite Nyonya kueh as I like its unique soft spongy chewy texture.

Kueh Bingka Ubi
Kueh Bingka Ubi is baked tapioca cake. It is made by mixing finely shredded tapioca (cassava) with coconut milk, eggs and pandan leaf (no flour is used). The batter is poured into a tray lined with banana leaf and baked in an oven.

Kueh Bingka Ubi has a tender, slightly chewy browned crust on the surface while soft and moist underneath. It is sweet and fragrant from coconut milk, eggs, pandan leaf and banana leaf.

Simple yet wonderful sweet snack!

Kueh Dadar
Kueh Dadar originally from Indonesia where it is known as dadar gulung. Dadar means pancake and gulung means rolled, so it is literally "rolled pancake" which is an apt description.

The pancake / crepe is made with rice flour, egg, sugar and pandan leaf which gives it its green colour. The batter is lightly pan fried with margarine on a flat griddle to make the pancake / crepe. The filling of grated coconut pulp, gula Melaka palm sugar and cinnamon is cooked separately. The browned grated coconut is rolled into the pancake to make kueh dadar.

Soft outside, oozing with juice inside, sweet and fragrant, a wonderful snack!

Kueh Kosui
Kueh Kosui also known as kue lumpang is made of glutinous rice flour, tapioca flour and sugar. There are green and brown versions blended with either green pandan leaf or brown gula Melaka. The blend is put in little cups and the contents are cooked by steaming. The bouncy jiggly mini sweet cake is eaten with lightly salted grated fresh coconut pulp.

Kueh Lapis
Kueh Lapis also known as "九层糕 nine layer cake" in Chinese is made with a blend of glutinous rice flour, sago flour, sugar and food colouring. It is made layer by layer - the bottom layer is cooked by steaming, then the next layer and so forth till all nine layers are done.

Most people eat kueh lapis in chunky bites but the prescribed way to enjoy this kueh is to peel off the layers one by one and eat the kueh layer by layer. It is funny how I ate kueh lapis layer by layer as a child but as an adult I gulped it down in chunks 🤔🤷 Anyway, the nine layers all taste the same - only the colour is different 😄

Kueh Lopes
Kueh Lopes are glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in triangular bundles with banana leaf. They are cooked by boiling in water (sometimes with pandan leaf added for fragrance). The tender, slightly gummy-chewy rice dumpling is served unwrapped and eaten with gula Melaka syrup and grated fresh coconut pulp. Kueh lopes is a very popular tea time snack.

Kueh Pie Tee
Kueh Pie Tee is very interesting and tasty. It is quintessentially Peranakan and cannot be found in any other cuisines. It is a small crispy pastry cup filled with stewed turnip, bang kuang (jicama), bean sprout, egg, shrimp etc similar to the filling of Hokkien popiah.

Its origins are a mystery unknown and found mainly in Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the Peranakan strongholds of former British Straits Settlements.

I personally love kueh pie tee for the contrasts in texture and savoury sweet flavours. Eating it with savoury spicy hot sambal makes it irresistible for me.

Kueh Salat
Kueh Salat also known as kue seri muka originates from Indonesia. It is a two layer cake. At the bottom, there is glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk. The top layer is a soft custard of coconut milk and pandan leaf. When cut into cubes, it reminds me of mahjong tiles 😄

It is a sweet and fragrant cake with sweetness and perfume from glutinous rice, coconut milk and pandan leaf. Nice mix of soft and tender-chewy textures.

The firmer glutinous rice layer is often tinted blue with butterfly pea flower. The blue blotches make the kueh look prettier but doesn't add any flavour or aroma.

Kueh Talam
Kueh Talam in Indonesian language means "tray cake". Kueh talam has two layers, both made with rice flour. The bottom layer is either green, brown or other colours depending on what the rice flour is blended with. Pandan leaf gives it green colour, palm sugar give brown colour and so forth. This coloured layer is laid in an aluminium tray first and it is cooked by steaming. When partially cooked, a second white layer is added. This white layer is rice flour blended with coconut milk. The tray is returned to the steamer till the kueh talam is fully cooked.

Again, this kueh is addictive to its fans due to its blend of different sweet and soft-tender layers. The green / brown bottom layer is firmer than the white layer on top. 

Lemper Udang
Lemper Undang is glutinous rice with savoury spicy dried prawn (hae bee hiam) filling. It is made by cooking glutinous rice in coconut milk. The cooked rice is rolled and filled with spicy dried prawn, then wrapped in banana leaf. Cooking is completed by either steaming or grilling over charcoal fire which impart an additional smokey and sweet aroma.

There are other versions of lemper with seasoned chicken, dried fish floss or toasted grated coconut pulp filling. All have lovely nicely balanced savoury sweet taste.

Ondeh Ondeh
Ondeh Ondeh is like a mochi ball (tang yuan) made of glutinous rice flour. It is coloured green by blending the glutinous rice with pandan leaf juice (there are yellow or purple versions with sweet potato). The core is filled with palm sugar known as gula Melaka. The sticky ball is rolled in grated coconut pulp. Ondeh ondeh is cooked by steaming.

In Chinese, ondeh ondeh is called 椰糖椰丝球 which means "coconut sugar and coconut shred ball" - a very descriptive name.

Ondeh ondeh tastes sweet in layers from the soft-spongy glutinous rice ball, molten palm sugar and squeaky grated coconut.

Ondeh ondeh originates from Java, Indonesia where it is known as klepon.

Putu Ayu
Putu Ayu is a wheat flour sponge cake. The bottom layer is blended with pandan leaf, hence the cheery green colour. The top layer is lightly pressed grated coconut pulp.

Putu ayu mini cakes are made in small flower shaped moulds. The grated coconut goes in first, and then the wheat flour, egg, pandan leaf etc batter follow over it. The filled moulds are steamed. When done, the fluffy cakes are released from the mould. The white now appears on top and the spongy green at the bottom.

Soft, bouncy, spongy, sweet and fragrant, putu ayu is the perfect accompaniment for tea or coffee.

Pulut Inti
Pulut Inti is glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk, crowned with grated fresh coconut pulp boiled with gula Melaka and served wrapped with banana leaf in a cone shaped bundle. The glutinous rice is sometimes coloured with butterfly pea flower for their attractive blue hue but it doesn't add flavour or aroma to the sweet snack.

Pulut Tai Tai
Pulut Tai Tai has a very interesting moniker as its name is literally "rich aunt's glutinous rice" 😄

But, it is actually a relatively humble kueh. It is simply glutinous rice boiled with butterfly pea flower which gives it an attractive blue tint. The cooked glutinous rice is compacted, cut and served in bite size cubes (hence it is also called pulut tekan which means "pressed glutinous rice").

The sweet tender-chewy glutinous rice cakes are eaten with kaya or coconut jam which is slathered or piped on top of the kueh. Pulut tai tai is enjoyed by everyone, not only rich aunts 😄


When is a kueh Peranakan and when is it not?   

I need more research and study to answer this question but the current convention is somewhat vague. For example, ang ku kueh is often listed among Nyonya kueh but it is the same kueh made since time immemorial and still made by Hokkien in China with no family ties with Peranakan. Another example, ondeh ondeh is considered quintessentially Peranakan by some but the same snack known as klepon is made in Java by locals who have no family ties with Peranakan.

I would love to hear your take on this.

I missed out your favourite Nyonya kueh?

Give me a shout out in the comments and I shall go look for it. Promise that I will include it in this list after trying it.

Thank you for helping me make this list better 🙏

Here are more kueh sketched by renowned Singapore mural artist and illustrator Lee Xin Lin. You can purchase these beautiful posters at Zazzle.

Written by Tony Boey on 18 May 2021.

Image of ondeh ondeh courtesy of WikipediaImage of kueh talam courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of assorted Nyonya kueh courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Chinese junk courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Peranakan ladies courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Peranakan family courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Peranakan wedding courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Nyonya kueh courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of ang ku kueh courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kue seri muka courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kueh kosui courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kueh Bugis courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of putu ayu courtesy of Wikipedia. Image pulut inti courtesy of flickr. Image of bingka ubi courtesy of flickr. Image of kueh lopes courtesy of flickr. Image of pulut tai tai courtesy of flickr. Image of kueh pie tee courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kueh bingka Ambon courtesy of Wikipedia.

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