Doing the Write Thing: Christopher Tan
Christopher Tan is an award-winning writer and cooking instructor whose articles, columns, recipes and photographs have appeared in several publications, not least The Sunday Times, The Straits Times, The Peak magazine and Saveur magazine. He also conducts talks and cooking demonstrations, and has authored and co-authored many cookbooks, including Chinese Heritage Cooking, Ask The Foodie, NerdBaker and his latest, The Way of Kueh.
That book is not only packed with around 100 kueh recipes, but it also contains engrossing stories of the kueh makers who, for generations, have been perfecting these tasty treats. Here, Chris offers a glimpse into what it takes to go The Way of Kueh.
Compiling so many kueh recipes into one stunning cookbook is no mean feat, especially with some of these recipes on the brink of being forgotten. What was the research process like?
Reading, reading and more reading ... and then cooking, cooking and more cooking – all interspersed with many visits to markets, shops and stalls to recce the current state of the kueh-scape. I bought or borrowed as many texts as I could find which recorded details of kuehs past and present – the oldest ones date back to the 1800s.
Creating and testing all the recipes took nearly two years of weekly trials, although truthfully, I have been tinkering with some of them, like kueh ambon, for a decade or more. The simplest ones, such as kai tan koh, took the longest to refine to a level I was happy with, as when you only have a few ingredients, small adjustments can make a big difference. It was complicated by the fact that, while I have a perfectionist streak, I don’t believe in the concept of a ‘perfect recipe’ – if you declare something ‘perfect’, you deny it the chance of improvement. Both recipes and people always need that chance!
How did you go about deciding which kuehs to feature in The Way of Kueh, and what makes them Singaporean?
Singaporean food is what Singaporeans cook, eat and enjoy. To repeatedly make and to treasure a recipe over many years until it becomes a part of you, a recognisable signature of your cooking style – this is what makes it yours.
To be honest, if I hadn’t had time and space constraints, there could easily have been well over 100 recipes – our kueh heritage runs wide and deep. The 98 kuehs on which I chose to focus were those which I deduced and intuited were the most popular, the most iconic, the most meaning-laden, and the most "revivable" from endangered status. The final roster was determined quite early on, but there was some flux: about four months before we were due to go to print, just as I was completing the photography phase, I found a couple of rare kuehs on the brink of vanishing, and decided that I had to fit them in somehow. Also, the new recipes I created to conclude the book changed several times – some of my ideas were just too out there, others weren’t audacious enough to get my point across about innovation being sparked by tradition.
What also makes the book interesting are the interviews with the kueh makers. What was it like talking to them?
Every encounter was different. I am blessed to have known some of the kueh-makers since my childhood: others were recommended to me by friends and colleagues, while others serendipitously fell into my lap. I was really happy to spend as much time with each of them as they were able to give, which was anywhere from an hour or so to almost a whole day. I tried hard to encourage them to open up and talk freely, and I made it clear that I was not interested in getting them to divulge their heirloom recipes – respecting someone’s intellectual property and family secrets is very important to me. What I really wanted to hear were their opinions, memories and feelings about kueh and cooking.
I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Penang speaking with and observing kueh artisans who still use equipment and techniques that are rare if not altogether vanished here – for example, steaming kueh bakol (nian gao) for 12 hours over a wood fire in a kampung hearth. It really helped me to appreciate how much the rhythms of everyday life change as people and places become more urbanised, and how this affects the way we cook.
What has been your takeaway from the whole endeavour?
Seeing the willingness of these veteran kueh makers to share their perspectives, and hearing their personal stories, has been the most amazing part of making this book. In an era where instant gratification is prized, it was such an important reminder of the value of perseverance, commitment to quality, and sheer hard graft. They have taught me that what lifts goodness to greatness is often simply time, spent wisely.
Get The Way of Kueh here.