Wednesday 18 June 2014

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)

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