Nostalgia is Sweet

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The sure sign of getting old is when you started to feel nostalgic and get all misty-eyed when things from your younger days make an appearance.
When I saw the tray of Hainanese kueh at my neighbourhood sweets shop, I knew I have to confirm my not-young-anymore status.

I stopped in my tracks in front of the tray of kueh individually and neatly wrapped in banana leaves. This is the kueh from my childhood, the ones which my granny would happily churn out during special occasions and when one of her grandchildren (that would be me) begged for a taste.

Well-made Hainanese kueh, aka, the version churned out by Granny, is irresistible – a layer of chewy, gooey, steamed glutinuous rice flour skin, enveloping gula melaka-sweetened coconut filling. The very sight of the kueh filled my heart and mind with warm memories, and my tummy with a mighty strong craving! I bought three and happily went home, planning to savour them after dinner.

Being the glutton I am, I eagerly bit into one of the kueh but was left with an overwhelming disappointment. I was no kueh snob but these were just… bad! While they looked exactly like what my Granny used to make, it is an insult to even compare these to hers. The glutinuous rice skin was tough and chewy in a wrong, wrong way. The coconut filling had just one taste – it was sweet, flatly so, with no nuances. It didn’t even taste like coconut! It tasted like… sweet sawdust. The texture was wrong and the taste was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

It was then, I realised, I should start to learn cooking from Granny – can’t call myself a true-blue Hainanese girl if I can only eat chicken rice and Hainanese kueh-kueh without knowing how to make them. Gamely, my feisty Granny agreed.

When I watched my Granny prepared the coconut filling, I came to understand that satisfying my childhood craving was not an easy task. It took experience, skill and patience. To prepare the filling, my Granny started with melting a mixture of muscovado sugar and gula melaka in the wok, while I pound a two-inch piece of ginger to extract the juice and a one-inch square of the skin of dried mandarin oranges. The ginger juice and powdery dried mandarin orange skin was added to the sugar mixture (mighty yummy-smelling by now!), then the coconut (Granny had expected me to grate the coconut myself, so the filling will not too mealy. I cheated with supermarket-bought grated coconut – not okay by her, but fine by me, the greedy slob).

 

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When the coconut filling was cooling, Granny kneaded glutinuous rice flour with water and canola oil. to make the “skin”. Despite me trying to convince Granny that as an experienced bread-maker, I am good at knreading dough, she insisted on doing it herself. I watched humbly, as I could never argue with her number of years of experience.
Then came the tough part. Granny expertly wrapped the coconut filling with the glutinous rice dough, then wrapped the almost-finished sweet in a strip of banana leave, to prevent the dough from sticking and to impart the fresh, green fragrance of the leaves to the kueh. Sad to say, the two kueh I wrapped came loose while they were steaming.

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I downed two kueh when they came out of the steamer. Oh, yummy! This was exactly what Hainanese kueh should taste like! The skin was delicate and chewy at the same time, the coconut filling is not just sweet with a molassy tone but it was infused with a slight tang from the mandarin orange skin and ginger juice added a certain je ne sais quoi.
Unfortunately, I don’t really have the recipe. Well, while I know the steps, I couldn’t catch up with Granny throwing a handful of sugar here and a dizzle of oil there. What can I say – the experts work from experience and have no need to follow recipes.

Maybe I ought to ask her to show me how to make the kueh again!  🙂

 

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