The first time I came across one of Christopher Tan’s articles was entirely by chance. I was perusing an issue of The Peak at the lounge of a hotel and was completely blown away by his reflections on bread-making. Later, I bought a copy of his book Nerdbaker and spent the next hour admiring his prose, his passion for food and dedication as a cookbook writer.
A year or two later, when I was working on a cookbook with Epigram and heard that he was writing a book titled The Way of Kueh, I knew that it would be a hit. What a genius name and how relevant it was to have a comprehensive, authoritative guide on kueh-making in a time where young Singaporeans know their ravioli from spaghetti, but can’t tell pulut inti from rempah udang.
I remember a young reporter interviewing me for Wet Market to Table. When I brought up kueh pie tee as an example of a common use for bang guang in Singapore, she admitted sheepishly that she didn’t know what that was. Another time, at a family gathering, I found out that my teenage cousins had no inkling what ang ku kuehs were.
Christopher Tan is a national treasure and The Way of Kueh, with its detailed recipes and generous tips, is destined to be a classic. I set out to make his pineapple tarts last Chinese New Year. The recipe was meticulously written and, if I was honest, slightly intimidating in its attention to detail – from hand-chopping the pineapple and wringing out the juice with a piece of muslin, to toasting the flour with pandan leaves. But in the end, the hard work proved worth it in a single bite.
Like his recipes, Christopher’s responses to the questions that I asked for this interview were challenging and illuminating. Read on to learn what this author, photographer and cooking instructor has to say about the real threat of heritage food and what drove him to write The Way of Kueh the way he did.
What makes me the foodie I am today is… the sum total of my life’s eating experiences. The moments which stand out are those when I was able to sit at the feet of food masters – a champion kueh-maker aunty, an Italian wheat farmer, a roomful of Hainanese dumpling experts – and just listen and absorb brain food.
I am an advocate and champion of Singaporean food because… I am Singaporean. This is the food I grew up with. This is what lives in my bones. I also try to be a defender and supporter of all heritage food and of home cooking in general. Actually, I started out teaching both local and western-style baking, and my classes have always taken into account what my students want to learn as well as what I want to teach. But I take every opportunity to teach about elements of heritage – not just local recipes, but techniques and perspectives and local history. In general I am fascinated by the food heritage of our entire region, and how it has been knitted together by trade and migration and cultural exchange.
The frantic pace of modern life… permits us so little time to become conversant with and acquire the rhythms of cooking at home and cooking frequently. Because of this, many of us may not fully realise two things which seasoned cooks know: time and labour wisely invested in cooking always pay you back in spades; and there are plenty of things which are both quick to make and also delicious. If we all give learning to cook more priority in our lives, everyone’s understanding of food will grow, which will solve this and other issues relating to the information deficit.
People may shy away from making kueh at home as the result of… the confluence of a few things – not enough time, not enough space or equipment, lack of confidence, no access to reliable recipes, the ease of buying ready-made kueh, and so on. One of the reasons is also the mistaken apprehension that all kuehs are laborious and time-consuming to make, which is not true. There are many kuehs which require little active time.
People these days seem to chase food trends over heritage food because… the grass is always greener on the other side. Singapore has been a port city for so many centuries that we are used to a high level of cultural dynamism, with trends and influences and fads coming and going. It’s not surprising that we would seize hold of these. Also, the way that the media often breathlessly spotlight and hold up these trends only encourages their adoption. In comparison, what we think of as commonplace and everyday often fades into the background, and we become indifferent to it, which is sad regardless of whether it reaches the level of outright disdain.
My cookbooks are all extensively researched and meticulously written because… to me, clarity and reproducibility are absolutely non-negotiables when writing a recipe. One of the things which drove me to write The Way of Kueh was my dissatisfaction with recipes that told me to ‘cook until done’, or that never specified pan size, or called for ‘1 bowl of flour’, and so on. I want to reduce ambiguity to a minimum, so that even novices could pick up my book and head straight into the kitchen with it. Consequently, the toughest challenge facing every heritage cookbook author is how best to translate traditional recipes from their intangible show-and-tell form into text on a page. It’s a hard but tremendously fulfilling task.
Properly defined, agak-agak means… precisely achieving a desired outcome using only one’s senses, or ‘precision without measuring equipment’ as I explain it to my cooking students. It means knowing your métier so well that you can assess and adjust to variations in ingredients and conditions on the fly. It is NOT the converse of precision. It does not mean slapdash, it does not mean anyhow, it does not mean ‘near enough is good enough’.
In the heritage kitchen, both recipes and agak-agak skills are taught organically, through verbal, visual and practical instruction plus frequent practice and repetition. For those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to learn to agak-agak this way, detailed recipes help to bridge the knowledge gap and are a stepping stone to the eventual mastery of agak-agak – they help you to understand how changes affect outcome, and to illuminate why specific ingredients and steps are necessary.
To me, the real threat to heritage food… is twofold: firstly, people – unconsciously or not – not understanding, recognising and respecting the value of their own heritage cuisine; and secondly, people – again, unconsciously or not – focusing on and exalting restaurant and chef-created food to the neglect of home cooking. We too often forget that every cuisine, no matter how ramified and complex it eventually becomes, started in home kitchens, which were and are and should be the crucibles of evolution.
If the art and practice of home cooking dwindles, our younger and future generations will not have a coherent ‘national cuisine’ bequeathed to them. If we do not educate their palates at home, they will not be familiar with how Singaporean palates and food flavour profiles work.
What gives me hope for the future of Singaporean food is that… many of the kueh makers I interviewed for the book are from the younger generation. The very fact that we are having this conversation gives me hope.
One positive legacy of the whole covid-19 situation that I hope for will be that… with us all stuck at home and forced to cook (more) ourselves, we will emerge out of lockdown with a newfound appreciation of the skill, art and dedication it takes to be a cook, and of how good home-cooked food can be. Ideally this will drive us to BOTH respect hawkers and restauranteurs more, and also to cook more at home.