Journalism

Nonya kueh: Wolfing down Singapore’s wobbliest cake
By Judith Kampfner
Singapore

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Restaurants serving Singapore’s fusion cuisine called Peranakan – the marriage of Chinese and Malay cooking traditions – used to be hard to find. But now as the city-state explores its own identity with increasing confidence, it’s suddenly all the rage.

Two years after I got married the first time around, I took my husband and baby on a nostalgic trip to Singapore – the nation state where I was born and where I lived a carefree childhood.

Husband number one was not an adventurous eater, but I presented him with classic satay from a hawker stall. He gave it a thumbs up.

He did not, however, take to the sweetmeats of my nursery – little cakes called nonya kueh. (Nonya means woman, in a dialect that is a creole of Malay and Hokkien).

The kind I like are called kueh lapis, which in Malay means ladder cake, or layer cake.

Symbolising a ladder to prosperity, they are made up of green, white, red, brown and yellow strips.

These delicate slices of cold pudding are different combinations of glutinous rice flour, sago, coconut, beans, syrup, pandan leaves and eggs.

My childhood memories are of trotting along to my neighbour Mrs Tan’s kitchen and eating her newly steamed, wobbly cakes.

Sometimes the kueh were treats at the end of a restaurant meal with my parents and friends.

But you cannot eat these delights in most Chinese restaurants around the world because they come from a unique culture only to be found around the Strait of Malacca.

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Refurbished Peranakan house in Singapore’s Emerald Hill

It all started in the 17th Century when male traders came from southern China.

They were not allowed to bring women with them, so they settled down with Malay women, mainly in Penang and Singapore.

Over the centuries, this marriage of cultures has been called Peranakan, which means descendant.

Essentially, it is now a Chinese community that incorporates aspects of Malay culture.

I have spent my adult life craving the soft, sticky, jelly-like desserts that slip down the throat so, six weeks ago – after I got married again – I wasted no time.

I persuaded my new husband that he just had to fly with me to Singapore to taste the rare sweets I love. So my honey and I went on a honeymoon to eat.

Alas, sad to say, he took a tiny bite of a coconut and neon-green layered beauty and put it down.

I am sure he wondered if he had been sold a defective bill of goods – his new wife was greedy!

He watched, horrified, as I wolfed down plates of nonya kueh. And then friends – long aware of my weakness – brought more and told me of a new chain of bakeries that specialised in them.

Wow, a chain! What could this mean? It used to be that you had to go and hunt them down.

Slowly, I realised that Peranakan culture, which used to be considered a disadvantaged background, was now chic.

My hunch is that this is because Singapore is experiencing a cultural renaissance – it is exploding with arts festivals and new museums.

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Nonya soup served at last month’s World Street Food Congress in New York

One of these is the Peranakan Museum, which opened in 2008.

In a beautiful 100-year-old colonial school building, with all the usual interactive bells and whistles, it showcases the art, costume, furniture and food of this hybrid culture – making the point that not only does it give Singapore cultural distinction, but that it is very much alive and undergoing a transformation.

The museum store commissions new versions of Nonya women’s jewellery such as brooches that fasten the embroidered kebaya tops that are worn with sarongs.

Elsewhere in Singapore, distinctive houses where Peranakan merchants lived above their stores are being refurbished – not as museum pieces but as boutiques, bars and cafes with “nonya nouveau” cuisine.

We went to one where the hipster owners were re-creating their mothers’ cooking with cocktails and serving it tapas-style. My honeymoon sweetheart adored these places. He is a foodie, but had never tasted anything like it.

Husband number one did not really like Singapore – maybe because we had to take a baby around packed streets and malls.

Maybe because, 20 years ago, Singapore was all about shopping and Western brands. But now second husband has come home raving about “hidden” Singapore.

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Judith in a traditional kebaya top with brooch

“Forget all you hear about a sterile, draconian city,” he says. “There is so much to do and see.” Hmm, success…

It is not just that the husbands are different personalities. It is because Singapore has evolved.

It can afford to explore its own identity – to recognise what was once ignored or hidden and help tourists discover it.

I found a Peranakan guidebook directing me to heritage rooms at the National Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum.

In fact Peranakan identity is so out-there that even home design guru Martha Stewart recently tried nonya cooking.

Although there is a picture of some nonya kueh wobbling about, in her video, she does not eat one.

What a shame – she will never know what she missed.

Listen online or download the podcast.

FOOC Poll Worker
By Judith Kampfner
New York

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When you fill out a voter registration form in New York, you can tick a box to say you’re also willing to become a poll worker. I was so happy to be a newly-minted American citizen, that I ticked it, without expecting any follow-up. But months later, a postcard arrived telling me to report for a mandatory three-hour training session to become a PW for the BOE – NY. That’s Poll Worker for the New York Board of Elections.

In August, I duly went to class, and was herded into a line with about forty other PW’s in training – feeling anxious, because I knew we’d have to take a test and I panic in tests. The learning environment was chaotic, lined with boxes from floor to ceiling. Josh, our 70 year old, ex-Marine instructor, was at pains to tell us what not to wear. ‘No low-rise pants, no hats unless for religious reasons, no halter tops or tank tops, no cleavage.’ But what about what we did have to do?

The primary vote would be a practice run for later this year: with such a tight Presidential race, crowds of voters are expected on November 6th. So I had to be ready. Apparently New York State is short of 30,000 poll workers, so each would take on a lot of responsibility.

‘Don’t show up even 1 minute after 5am’, Josh had yelled. So at 4.30 on Primary Day, I was on an almost-deserted subway train, bound for my polling station at an elementary school.

Essentially, I went because I was curious. Which is a less noble reason than the ones offered by my co-workers. Without exception they spoke of a wish to take part and give something back. They didn’t have the typically entitled New York attitude. All were either African American or immigrants. In fact I was the only Non Hispanic White – as designated on the census form – among them. But as a recent immigrant I fitted in. And no one remarked on my accent.

No-one was there for the money. An information clerk’s pay is a grand $200, for what would be a 17-hour day – as it will be at the general election.

The set-up was crazy. The coordinator seemed at a loss and we workers started to munity, declaring that unless she made up her mind, we would take charge ourselves. There were no chairs, so we scrounged some tiny ones from the classrooms.

As we rolled out the new sleek voting cubicles on wheels, emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, we joked that only 25 voters would turn up for the primary. Unpacking the materials and equipment was a major operation. Was it worth it if only a handful appeared?

It was unusual to have an election on a Thursday. Tuesday is the traditional day – but that week, Tuesday fell on September the 11th. Yet despite the change of day, and despite the fact that at my polling station only registered Democrats could vote because Republican positions were uncontested, I estimated there were 400 voters. In fact local papers reported a good turnout across the state.

So why did people bother to show up, just to choose one of two Democratic state senators and one of two local Democratic judges? It’s good practice, for one thing. People were nervous about the new scanning machines and curtainless voting booths. Many complained that the lettering on the ballot paper was now too small and they needed help putting the document in the scanner.

Before long, the school principal – dressed like a pop diva in a tight slit dress and towering high heels – descended on us and seized all our chairs, yelling that we were depriving her pupils. So I ended up standing … for 17 hours.

The officers on shift from the New York Police Department did have chairs. But there was nothing for them to do until 9pm, when the portable memory cards from the scanners went into a yellow pouch and on to No 1 Police Plaza.

I was shattered. There are supposed to be two information clerks at each station but I was alone. All day I’d been looking up addresses, and turning people away who’d come to the wrong place. Since the census of 2010, state assembly and senate district lines have been redrawn. And it seems many voters hadn’t been told where to go.

Several people, not unreasonably, pointed out that if Democrats really cared about their flock, they would give out reliable information. ‘I don’t have time to go elsewhere, so you idiots have lost a vote.’ And ‘You people, you people make me sick,’ were typical reactions.

Actually I was proud to do the job, and like to think I took the abuse gallantly. The poll workers’ camaraderie had rubbed off.

Henry Darger Is by Judith Kampfner
Henry Darger Is by Judith Kampfner

Image provided by Kiyoko Lerner

Photo: Greg Lord