Saturday 21 June 2014

Nostalgic: Bai Tang Gao / Steamed White Sugar Sponge Cake

As a kid, I loved Bai Tang Gao as it's sweet and soft! :) Only recently did I realize that the coffeeshop near my place sells this. But because it gets sold out by, say, 8am, I didn't know they stocked it in the past. :D

The early bird catches the kueh (in this case).

Google 'Bai Tang Gao' and you will find over 3 million search results, including recipes! 

I spotted the brown sugar version being sold at the coffeeshop the other day, but it was sold out when I tried to get it today. Oh well. 

I have a couple of questions though:

1) Why is Bai Tang Gao sold in a triangular shape? Why not a square or rectangle?

2) What is the name of the brown version, in Mandarin?

3) What are the origins of this Bai Tang Gao? 

One website states that Bai Tang Gao is "one of the oldest Beijing snacks" and is originally from "cantonese cooking". [] Do we have any idea who invented the Bai Tang Gao? :)

If you have the answer to any of my questions, leave me a comment or drop me a note! :D

Update: I HAVE found the brown version, but the lady selling it calls it 白糖糕 anyway. (@_@)

I think I enjoyed the brown version more, though. 

Wednesday 18 June 2014

(Born in the 80s) Snacks From My Childhood :D

Did you grow up eating these snacks? If you did, you must be at least as old as I am. :D

Just as my mother misses the kacang puteh, sold in newspaper wrapping, that she used to eat as a kid, I remember fondly these snacks that I used to spend a large portion of my pocket money on! 

I would love to keep some of these in a time capsule for future generations to discover, if not for the fact that these are perishable. So, I'm documenting them right here!

Over the course of a month, the snack collection you see above grew. I purchased these snacks in Singapore, Malaysia and even in Taiwan when I went there for a holiday last month. Everything from haw flakes to Wang Wang biscuits; I ignored the calories and bought them anyway. :)

I enlisted the help of my photographer friend, Max Clyne, and we did a photoshoot in his home "studio". 

[The result] Perhaps I can print this as postcards:

But that's not all! I wondered what these snacks would look like if re-packaged as atas treats. So here's what I did...

Old School Snacks Reimagined #1:

[From left: really old-school biscuits with pineapple jam, cheese balls and Apollo milk wafer cream with iced gem biscuits on top]

Those pineapple jam biscuits were my favorites in kindergarten. I would look forward to these and banana pancakes at teatime. 

Then there are the cheese balls. I have to admit that I like the 'Super Ring' version more, because I can stack those up like rings on my fingers, and then eat them all.

The Apollo wafers are like the Asian version of tim tams. I don't know anyone who was born in the 80s but has not eaten an Apollo wafer during his/her childhood. 

And if you don't already know, there are a total of THREE ways to eat iced gem biscuits:

#1: Eat the biscuit first and leave the 'gem' for last (some would call this delayed gratification)

#2: Eat the gem first and leave the biscuit behind (others would call this instant gratification)

#3: Eat the gem and the biscuit at the same time (I call this being practical)

I tend to do #1 and #3. You? :)

Old School Snacks Reimagined #2:

[From left: Yan Yan biscuit fingers with chocolate dip, Mamee Monster, Wang Zai Ball Cakes 旺仔小馒头 with 'bangle candy' on top, and raspberry ripple ice cream topped with biscuit piring wafer]

My Dad still stocks Yan Yan in his snacks cabinet! The chocolate biscuit snack continues to taste as good even after so many years. 

And with Mamee Monster, it is easy to tell who is a newbie at eating this snack. The newbies immediately open the pack and add the seasoning. The experienced Mamee-eaters will crush the noodles before opening the pack, then add the seasoning, and grabbing the top, shake it lightly so the seasoning spreads out evenly. :D

Wang zai biscuits and "bangle candy" (or what my fiancé calls "imitation M&Ms") have also not lost their charm. Adults and kids alike love the 旺仔小馒头 and I think they are very addictive because I can never get sick of eating them. 

And finally, I topped the raspberry ripple ice cream with 'biscuit piring wafer' which I had cut up - it usually comes in round sheets like crispy popiah skins, in three colors.

{ Giveaway }

One lucky winner will receive this entire box of goodies, including my favorite Super Ring snack, Hello Kitty PEZ candy from Taiwan, a Push Pop, Wang Wang biscuits, Apollo wafers, and more! :D

You can also win this for a friend! :)

All you need to do is comment on this blogpost and tell me what your favorite childhood snack is, irregardless of whether I have featured it in this post. :)

Winner announcement on 30th June 2014. Good luck!

Persimmons and Bread: Remembering Uncle

To you, a persimmon may be just a fruit.

To me, a persimmon is linked to memories of an uncle I dearly miss.

{ his favorite fruit }

He was always a part of my childhood. He was always a part of our photos. 

He was always there. Till one day, he wasn't around anymore.

{ He tends to stay in the background but his love for his nieces is always evident }

My uncle died from nose cancer when I was in primary school. I remember walking up to his bed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and wondering why it was so high. I could not even see what was on the other side of the bed. 

I did see his right hand though. It seemed there were tubes and needles everywhere. As a young child, I was terrified. 

I could not comprehend why my kind uncle lay in bed all day, and no longer brought me out to play...

Every Sunday, after Sunday school, my mother would bring me to my grandmother's house. I could never sit still and always asked if we could go downstairs to the 'mama shop' for an ice-cream or chips, or chase after some of the pigeons in the neighborhood. 

Mom's answer would always be "NO!" but my uncle had a soft spot in his heart for me. 

With my small hand in his seemingly gigantic one, I would hop out the front door, past the rusting iron gate, and he would laugh and tell me to slow down. 

I can no longer recall the days leading up to his death, or what happened at the funeral and after. Perhaps it is my subconscious' way of protecting me since those days were just too confusing for me to comprehend. I had no idea what "cancer" was at that time.

But, thanks to this uncle, I didn't just get snacks from the 'mama shop'. My mother got an education and I got a solid foundation in reading. 

He knew that my mother, an adopted child, would not get equal access to education. So he slipped her some money to take up a typewriting course, which eventually helped her secure a job in civil service. He also told her to bring me to the Toa Payoh Library every Sunday to borrow English books. 

All the 'As' I have ever scored in English, Literature and just about every other subject, I owe them to him. 

And my uncle was a very thrifty man. According to my mother, he would eat only biscuits during lunchtime at work and have his other meals at home. His only guilty pleasure in life seemed to be the persimmons he would relish every Sunday afternoon.

I am eternally grateful to this man, who could not bear to spend money on buying himself lunch, but would let me fritter away his hard-earned money on ice-cream and chips.

{ I know you would love these }

Now I think you have begun to understand why persimmons cause such a stirring of the heart in me.

Each bite into a persimmon is a sweet reminder of my uncle's love.


Back in those days, before BreadTalk was founded, my uncle bought red bean buns that were sold in a pack of 6. I am amazed that these still exist today! 

I guess that was the beginning of my love for red bean treats. 

After my uncle's passing, no one else bought those red bean buns. And only recently did I meet someone (very much like my uncle; thrifty and kind) who offered me one of those red bean buns! His name is Jui Ming.

I was at a loss for words.

I would normally not take food from someone else, especially if we had not washed our hands before having our fingers come into contact with the food. But there is something very communal about 'breaking bread' and sharing it, that my hands just reached out and took the red bean bun he offered. 

Also, Jui Ming's gesture reminded me of my uncle, and there was no way I could refuse that bun.

It is indeed strange. These buns are inexpensive; sold in a pack of 6 for S$1.10 currently. There is very little red bean filling, the bread is rather dry and the miserable sprinkling of sesame seeds on the buns makes you wonder why they even bothered with them in the first place. However, I truly enjoyed that bun!

Jui Ming and I are both volunteers at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF). We visit the dialysis centre in Balestier every month and spend the afternoon with patients, engaging them in mind stimulation activities, but more often, just chit-chatting with them as many of the patients are elderly folks who can't see very well but are always happy to have a friendly listening ear. 

Our volunteer group is a small one. After the NKF saga in the past, many things have changed. But the plight of the patients remains the same. They have many dietary restrictions, and one of the most difficult ones is to take only 500ml of fluid every single day.

What that means is they cannot have, say, more than 2 glasses of water a day. And if you drink a small bowl of soup, you essentially are left with the allowance of only 1 glass of water for the rest of the day. It is akin to torture, especially on hot days like what we have been experiencing recently.

I am thus reminded on a monthly basis of how fortunate I am, in that I can eat just about anything I want.

Most of the time, people try to out-eat each other. We snap pictures of our meals at the most atas restaurants in Singapore, queue for Ladurée macarons and Tim Ho Wan pau, instagram pictures of our fancy brunches, waffles, rainbow cakes and all. But we do not get to enjoy food other than on that most superficial level.

During my first school camp away from home, I cried myself to sleep one night because I missed my mother's home-brewed soup. In my previous job with a salary of S$114,000, I was miserable because I could never make it home for dinner due to work. It was such irony. I could afford just about any expensive cuisine, but I couldn't even get what is free (my mother's homecooked food) and which was what I craved for most.

I would like to challenge you to look at food differently. If you indulge in food you truly enjoy, your heart sings, you feel at peace and happy, and even though it isn't from some Michelin-starred restaurant, it satisfies you on so many levels. That, my friend, is real good food. 

The Last Muah Chee Master In Singapore (Hougang 6 Miles Famous Muah Chee)

Like many Singaporean couples, I head to the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh only when it is time to purchase a flat. On my previous trip there, I spotted an interesting stall at the basement foodcourt - it sold muah chee; a glutinous rice dough treat that is often coated with ground peanuts and sugar. I did a double take, because I am a huge fan of muah chee, and usually get my muah chee fix at pasar malams. What was this stall doing in a foodcourt?! How odd!

Also, this stall is apparently famous, according to its signboard!

The taste

I was shocked at how light and marshmallow-y the muah chee tasted. Also, there was an unusual fragrance to it, which I later found out was due to the shallot oil that the dough is dipped in before it is rolled about in a pool of ground peanuts. 

Rated “die die must try” in the Makansutra Singapore food guide for many consecutive years, and exalted as the "gold standard for Muah Chee" by popular food blogger Dr Leslie Tay, this famous muah chee is as good as it gets.

So I just could not help but ask the boss, Mr Teo:

"为什么你做的muah chee这么好吃?"


S$3.50 for a medium-sized serving:

I was told that he uses only peanuts while muah chee sellers at pasar malams might include cheaper ingredients such as corn, which came as a surprise to me.

Mr Teo Yong Joo from Hougang 6 Miles Muah Chee learnt the ropes from his father who brought his craft to Singapore from China. He beamed with pride while telling me that some of his loyal customers were originally his father's customers, and some fans tell him 4 generations of their family have been eating muah chee made by the Teos!

How come there is Black Muah Chee and why do pasar malams not sell this?!

Mr Teo revealed that though he sells the muah chee (black and white) at the same price, the cost of the ingredients for the black (sesame) muah chee is three times higher! But he knows that if he doesn't sell it, many Singaporeans will not get a chance to taste the black muah chee. *sniff*

And why are there no scissors in sight?

According to Mr Teo, pulling / plucking at the rice dough stretches it and gives it added elasticity (弹性) and improved texture. He says the principle behind this and tenderizing meat with a cleaver is the same.

How did he get started?

His parents had more than ten children, but he was the only one who helped his father make and sell muah chee since he was 14. So he looked incredulous when I asked if his father was the one who taught him to make muah chee. His response was that he just watched what his father did, and ended up knowing how to do the same.

Why is he selling muah chee even till this day?

Mr Teo kept emphasizing to me about what back-breaking work this is. He has to wake up at the break of dawn (4.30am), and make the glutinous rice dough himself, and toast and grind the peanuts, etc. And he packs up for the day only at about 9.30pm. So I just had to ask what drives him to constantly serve up this delicious muah chee every day.

His reply: so that his customers are able to reminisce about the past (让他们回味), about their childhood, about staying in a kampung and chasing after the muah chee man so as to purchase his 10-cent 古早味 muah chee.

Indeed, food is not merely calories. It is also about the memories that are evoked.

Why is Hougang 6 Miles Famous Muah Chee not in Hougang? 

From its original location in Hougang to Bedok and then to its current location in Toa Payoh HDB Hub, Mr Teo's 'journey' is not unlike that of his father's, when the latter was an itinerant hawker who plied the streets of Singapore from the 1950s, and never quite stayed for long in any one spot.

Mr Teo recalls with a chuckle that customers used to chase after his father with ten singapore cents for the muah chee. Though ten cents seems like a very small amount today, it was no easy feat for a child to convince his parents to part with ten cents for purchasing muah chee some sixty years ago! At that time, bus fares cost only one singapore cent, so ten cents was quite a big deal!

Mr Teo revealed that he is 'on the move' because he does not want to be held hostage by landlords who up the rent after they realize long queues form whenever Mr Teo sells his muah chee. When he requests to rent a stall, landlords are usually amused that Mr Teo thinks his muah chee business can survive more than a few months, and offer him a reasonable, if not low, rate. They are then taken aback at how good his business is, and would often ask for more money.

However, this muah chee master is happy that with each move, he gets to bring his muah chee to different parts of Singapore and have more people try it. He has a loyal following of over 1,000 customers whose contact details he records so he can inform them each time his stall moves to a new location.

*In fact, Dr Leslie Tay was the one who helped Mr Teo find this Toa Payoh location for his stall!

The Process

1) Preparation Work: The master starts his day as early as 4.30am. The preparation of the dough takes about 7 hours, so he needs to start early in order to have his stall ready for business at 11.30am.

2) PULL - the amount of strength used here is key. Besides his wife, the only other person he has taught to help out at his stall is his sister-in-law. And she told me that the way she plucks at the dough is still not as good as how Mr Teo does it.

3) Coat with fragrant shallot oil in a small bowl

4) Dunk into the tray of ground peanuts and sugar, ensuring the dough is evenly coated. Cut with a small spatula

The result is a plate (or packet) of delightfully tasty muah chee! Dr Leslie Tay calls this 'artisanal muah chee' and I couldn't agree more.

And for customers who DARE to say that Mr Teo's father made better muah chee:

This muah chee master told me that uncut muah chee tastes better, and to prove it, he made this special platter of muah chee just for me. True enough, it was more yummy than the plate of muah chee I had earlier. I found that because it is a bigger chunk, I could chew on it longer, and the fragrance of the shallot oil and the peanuts is just twice as wonderful. 

Why does he not sell these giant globs of muah chee instead? 

It is because some customers will complain that there's too little of the ground peanuts (in comparison) and that they might choke on these bigger pieces. Well, as the saying goes, you just can't please everyone

Mr Teo also gave me a tip, which he says he doesn't just tell anyone. :D Muah chee doesn't have to be eaten on the spot. He has even brought his muah chee overseas by plane! All you need to do is heat it up in a microwave oven (for approximately 2 minutes) when you are ready to consume it, and you will find the muah chee tastes even better when warm than when it is freshly made! Ahhh! 


What is the history behind muah chee?

According to Dr Leslie Tay's ieatishootipost food blog, muah chee comes from a Teochew term, and in its original form, "Chnee" means "Money" and "Muah" means "Full".  Muah Chee was traditionally used as an offering to the gods during festive occasions and was meant to bring prosperity to the person offering it.  It is sticky so that "Money" can, figuratively, stick to it!


No one to take over the business

Mr Teo has three children but he says this craft will not be passed down to any of them since nobody is keen on taking over his business.

In fact, he went all over Taiwan to try and find someone who is still selling muah chee not cut using a pair of scissors but stretched by the plucking method. After a long search, he could not find anyone making muah chee the same way, and was about to leave Taiwan dejected, when he found one such stall in a night market. When I asked if he could tell me which night market it was, he said he does not remember its name anymore.

I really like this muah chee uncle. Apart from the fact that he thought I'm only 22 years old (what a compliment!) and would make a suitable match for his son who is 22, he is jovial, has no airs about him despite his 'heritage hawker' celebrity status, and demonstrates not just good work ethics but he has also found a greater purpose and meaning in his work: He is not selling muah chee, he is preserving memories and helping people relive some of the most memorable moments from their childhood. How amazing is that?!

For REALLY good muah chee, head to:

Hougang Six Miles Famous Muah Chee

480 Toa Payoh Lor 6
HDB HUB B1-01 (Stall 21)
Opening Hours: 12pm – 9:30pm

Pricing: S$2.50 (S), S$3.50 (M), S$5.50 (L)