On the Trail of the Phoenix – Kueh Bakol (Tnee Kueh)
One of the main “highlights” of Chinese New Year has always been the making of traditional cookies and snacks which are otherwise seldom prepared throughout the rest of the year. About two or three weeks before Chinese New Year, usually a week or so after Tang Chek, my aunts would “assemble” at Grandma’s place to make a big batch of these CNY goodies, roping in some of her good old neighbours for the tedious task as well, with whom the goodies would be shared around with at the end. The familiar New Year delicacies include the ever popular kueh tair (pineapple tarts), kueh belanda (Nyonya love letters), kueh bangket, kueh bolu, peanut cookies, almond cookies etc. They work fastidiously round the clock with much precision like a factory production line, but yet being able to maintain a cheery banter, packing the entire kitchen with not just that annual indulgence of buttery and nutty aromas but also filled with much laughter and loud chatter. However, there is that one kueh which Grandma would prepare single-handedly all the while, until age eventually catches up with her and the task was “inherited” by one of my aunts but not without the ever watchful eye of Grandma. This is kueh bakol, the most important of all these festive kuehs which are continuously churned out over that fateful hectic weekend, for it is food not made for the mortals, but for the gods.
Unlike the rest of the kuehs which are made with “the more the merrier” number of people, kueh bakol is something which is best prepared alone, or at best kept to a bare minimum few. While the other kuehs which are made to serve visitors and guests during the entire CNY festive period from chueh yit (1st day of Chinese New Year and in the olden days, all the way to chap goh meh (15th day), kueh bakol was made for the sole purpose of deity worship. More specifically, for the prayers on the 24th day of the 12th month on the lunar calendar, known to the Peranakans as “ari datok naik” which mean ‘the day the god ascend back to the heavens’. The deity in question is of course the datok dapor ‘kitchen god’ who guards and safekeeps the most important part of the house, i.e. the kitchen, and in doing so ensures the well-being of everyone in the household. Tradition has it that every year on this day, he will return back to the heavenly palace to report to Tee Kong ‘The Jade Emperor” who reigns supreme above all the other gods of the Taoist belief, all the happenings in the households down in mortal realm. In fear that the datok dapor would “complain” to Tee Kong about all the negativities that occurred in a particular household this year which will mean bad luck being “bestowed” to the family for the upcoming year, kueh bakol is specially made for worshipping the kitchen god on this day in hope that only sweet things would be utter from his mouth upon enjoying this sugar-packed kueh. Some Chinese communities also practice plastering a small piece of the sticky kueh bakol onto the prayer tablet for the datok dapor in hope to stick the mouth of the kitchen god shut so as to prevent him from saying any “bad things” to Tee Kong!
Kueh bakol is known more commonly to other cultures within the larger Chinese diaspora as 年糕 nian gao to literally mean a “cake that is made specially for Chinese New Year”. Some folks interpret it as “a cake that is made only once a year” which sounds about right as well since it was considered a taboo to make it during other times of the year. To the Hokkiens, nian gao is otherwise known as 甜粿 tnee kueh to mean “sweet cake” and right it was, owing to the copious amount of sugar added in its making, not only to make the kueh sweet but also for that lovely caramelisation to kick in. To the Peranakans, the name stems from the little baskets (bakol) usually fashioned out of bamboo or rattan used in its making. Nowadays, tin cans are more commonly used. I used a mixture of baskets and cans for this year’s making.
The small baskets are carefully lined with banana leaves which have been softened by blanching in boiling water. Quite a number of layers are needed to prevent the thin batter from leaking during the steaming process. For me, this is the most difficult part in making kueh bakol the traditional way. In the past, glutinous rice which had been presoaked for a couple of hours in water was ground using a batu boh (stone grinder) to form a thick paste. More water is then added until the correct consistency is achieved before adding sugar. Nowadays, we no longer mill our own glutinous rice but instead use store bought glutinous rice flour instead. So the reverse is done, i.e. to leave the prepared batter to sit for a couple of hours for the flour to reconstitute and absorb enough moisture to prevent it from settling at the bottom of the basket during steaming which will cause the bottom to become denser than the top.
This is my first time making kueh bakol all on my own because we children were never allowed near when they are steamed, one of the many “patang larang” associated with making this kueh. So I never get to partake and learn about its making process when my grandmother was still around making it. I was too greedy and poured too much batter into each mould not realising that the kueh would actually expand to almost double its height and volume during the steaming process. The kueh bakol “naik” i.e. rose so much that the steaming cakes touched the cloth that was covering them! Thankfully apart from the surface looking slightly scruffed while trying to dislodge the kueh stuck to the cloth, they didn’t turned out that bad afterall! datok po pee!
Speaking of pantang larang, there were many taboos one had to be mindful of in preparing kueh bakol. Having to steam them for so long, the last thing one ever wanted is for them to fail. But because there are so many things one has to take care of, it is not always that the kuehs would turn out perfect. Shrouded with numerous superstitions and beliefs, the making of kueh bakol is said to be directly associated with one’s fortune in the coming year! Too much to risk as one’s plight rested gingerly on this sticky kueh. As such there are many “dos and don’ts” in the preparation of kueh bakol. One must be very careful with what one says or does, for fear to offend the “datok api” i.e. fire god. Some folks would make an offering of some fruits and joss sticks near to the stove to appease the fire god in return for a smooth and successful kueh making process. It is said that if someone was to utter mindlessly, “adoi how long more does the kueh bakol need to take?” or to exclaim “aiyoh kueh bakol looks so easy to make!” it is almost certain that the kueh would take a much longer time to steam and even so may look puchat (pale) when they eventually make it out of the steamer, not without being “kacoh” (disturbed) by the diety for one’s lacking in patience or humility. Or if someone was to complain that the kitchen is too hot to work in with the kueh bakol steaming over the api arang (charcoal fire), the kueh would overcook and darken too much. Women having their period and mummies-to-be were not allowed near the kitchen on those days when kueh bakol were prepared. Orang tua har, i.e. those in mourning should not be allowed to make kueh bakol at all. They are not even allowed to buy one themselves to eat, though it is permissible for them to be gifted with one from friends, neighbours or by the ching keh-chek em i.e. family of the sons or daughters-in law. Only good and sweet nothings can be said, or like what my grandma always said, “If you have nothing good to say, don’t say a thing at all!” She steamed the kueh bakol in the middle of the night when everyone was fast asleep to minimise her chances of using ‘chilaka! mak datok!” or with folks around doing things which may invoke her wrath and anger to “mulot jahat” and unleash her customary “yau siu!!!” on anyone in proximity! We children had been “well conditioned” to stay far far away whenever kueh bakol was being steamed, not wanting to become the scapegoats in case the kueh bakol turned out to be lesser of Grandma’s standards, or simply because we wanted to avoid her killer glares in case we main masak and ventured too near into her “kueh bakol territory“…
Apart from “ari datok naik“, kueh bakol is also one of the essential things to have as part of the offerings for the new year eve prayers, not forgetting “semayang tee kong” an elaborated prayer session which takes place around midnight of the 8th day of the first lunar month as we celebrate the tee kong ‘s birthday which falls on the 9th. Because of its supreme importance, kueh bakol also earned for itself another name “kueh besair“. Traditionally for the Peranakans, a thin and serrated strip of red paper was cut out carefully and then wrapped around the perimeter of the kueh bakol. Another round piece of red paper is then placed over the surface of the kueh, either plain, or intricately cut into into various motifs but always kept round. I loved such “handicraft” work since young and would often contest against my cousins to make the best looking paper cutting to gain my Grandma’s approval which invariably meant something to snack on or more pocket money! Talk about learning to butter and curry favour the adults at such a young age!
As mentioned, this is the first time I’m making kueh bakol from scratch and I’m quite pleased with the results. It is one of those kuehs which I’d not being able to learn from my grandmother as none of us children were allowed near when she made it. My aunts and mum did not carry on with the tradition of making kueh bakol after Grandma passed away as they deemed it really troublesome and time-consuming to spend one whole day and night in its making. Being all working mothers with hungry mouths to feed, it is not difficult to understand why they thought it to be easier to go out and buy one from one of the bibiks who still made them. Alas many of these bibiks too, have joined my Grandma in that dapor in heaven, probably bikin kueh together as well. One thing I remember though, was that the gaoh tepong i.e. kueh bakol batter was milky white when it was poured into the banana leaves-lined baskets and tin cans. This was the traditional way of making kueh bakol, unlike the simplified versions we see nowdays which have the sugar caramelised beforehand or simply resorted to using brown sugar to shorten the process. Grandma was one who would not spare the intricate of all details or take shortcuts. It is in hope that I would be able to continue upkeep Grandma’s traditions in making kueh bakol the old way.
Kueh Bakol Peranakan Sticky Glutinous Rice Flour Cake Recipe
makes about four 10-12 cm wide kueh bakol
400g glutinous rice flour
600g granulated sugar
2-3 tbsp cooking oil
banana leaves as needed, middle hard stem removed
four 10-12 cm wide tin cans or bamboo baskets
twine as needed
Mix water and glutinous rice flour in a large bowl to form a thick paste.
Add sugar and slowing stir with a spatula or very clean hands until the sugar dissolves completely.
Leave the batter to stand for at least 6 hours. I left mine overnight over the kitchen counter covered.
Blanch the banana leaves in boiling water or scorch them over an open fire until they soften considerably.
Line each tin can or basket with generously with layers of banana leaves. Cut out a round piece of banana leaf slightly larger than the diameter of the tin or basket steaming mould and press it down into the middle of the mould. Repeat for the rest of the tin cans/steaming baskets.
Bring a large wok of water to a rolling boil. Arrange the tin cans/steaming baskets in a steamer placed over the wok.
Strain the batter with a fine-wired sieve to remove any possible flour lumps directly into each steaming basket and fill them until just slightly more than half filled. Do not attempt to be greedy and fill them more than two-thirds full as the kueh expands during the steaming process!
Wrap the cover of the steamer with a piece of cloth to catch any condensation and steam the kueh bakol under medium high heat for 12-15 hours depending on the desired hue is obtained. In general, the longer one steams, the darker and harder the kueh bakol would become when they cooled down. Top up with boiling water frequently to prevent the wok from drying out.
Once the kuehs are done, take them out from the steamer immediately and dab any condensation which may have fallen onto the surface.
Quickly brush the surface with a thin layer of cooking oil while the kueh are still warm. This helps to prevent the surface from drying out and cracking when it cools down.
Let the kueh bakol cool down completely for at least 1 day before unmoulding.