…well, not literally. These are modern photographs, and sadly, not my own, but they convey the wonderful colour and intricacy of the ‘cakes’ my great grandmother would have made.
The ‘cakes’ feature heavily in my novel, as does the cuisine of the Nyonyas (explained below) – to the extent that my editor wryly told me one of the chapters made her very hungry! Which I took to be a good sign, given that I didn’t include pictures in my draft.
Now here’s what’s interesting about the ‘cakes’, which I will refer to henceforth by their Malay name of ‘kueh’ : they are wheat- and dairy-free. This makes them perfect for those of us who wish to avoid gluten and animal milk. Alas, I have to say the kueh are not for the weight-conscious, because they generally include copious amounts of coconut milk, coconut cream or grated coconut (sometimes all three!) as well as palm sugar (that lovely semi-viscous brown stuff you want to stick your fingers into). So the kueh may help with allergies, but not with girth…
Before I write more about the kueh, I should say a little about the formidable women who created them. The kueh you see here weren’t made by just anyone – but by a small community of women in Malaya known as the Nyonyas. This is important in my novel because the main character is a Nyonya (just like my great grandmother on whom the character is based). Therefore, the cakes the women made are known as Nyonya kueh. Which begs the question: who were the Nyonyas?
The short answer is that they are women of mixed Malay-Chinese heritage going back centuries (from the time Chinese traders first arrived on the Malay archipelago). The timeframe is important, because there may be many people with mixed heritage, but very few have managed to evolve a community with a culture as distinctive as the Nyonyas’. The Nyonyas succeeded by combining local Malay values and customs with the beliefs and traditions of their Chinese husbands, in very particular ways. For example, the women – who were Moslem – took on the religion of their husbands, converting to Taoism. I mention this because religion played an important role in Nyonya life, and bowing before an altar table, lit joss-sticks in hand, is a recurring theme in my story.
Of course in modern Malaysia, the fact that local Moslem women were able to convert from Islam to another religion, is never discussed. (It isn’t allowed today; today in Malaysia, if you’re born a Moslem, you remain a Moslem). Which is another reason why Nyonya culture is so unique and fascinating: it developed during a time when Malaya truly was one. I will have more to say about this in a later blog. Watch this space!
Now, to come back to Nyonya kueh. There are many varieties, all delectable and delicious, and some have symbolic significance. For example, the red ones below (angkoo) are traditionally given to relatives and friends to celebrate a baby’s first month on earth. I remember my first taste of angku when I was three: how the skin, made of glutinous rice flour and sweet potatoes, felt soft; the filling, of crushed mung beans, even softer, and bursting with flavour. I didn’t know what the flavour was at the time; now I’ve learnt it’s the scent of the pandanus leaves with which the beans are steamed. Simply delicious!
So, with all these varieties, you may well ask why I haven’t made any Nyonya kueh yet. The answer is partly because I fear the work, Nyonya cuisine being notorious for its sheer labour (when done properly, with no shortcuts), and partly because I haven’t had time to source the necessary ingredients in London. I’m referring here to exotic things like pandanus leaves, green pea flour, and natural colourings from for example, the clitoria flower (I haven’t made that up). Once I’ve made my first batch of Nyonya kueh, you’ll be the first to see the results!