I was warmly greeted by Gavan, who’s the third-generation owner of the Lek Lim Nonya Cake Confectionery shop which has been running since 1987, even before I was borned. This traditionally-built confectionery shop has been here at Bedok North St.4, Blk 84 since 26 years ago. Though there could have been some modifications to the shop and the way of perfecting the Nonya cakes, the spirit and belief that traditional Nonya cakes should be hand-made with much effort and patience still persists til today. And that hand-made traditional Nonya cakes which are really good would only need to rely on the word of mouth to inform everyone about how delightful these “kuehs” taste.
The word “kueh” in Teochew ( a Chinese dialect) usually refers to small bite-sized cakes or confectioneries which are commonly eaten in various parts of South-east Asia. And the word “Nonya” refers to the Peranakan heritage. Just like in France, they’ve got macarons and eclairs while in Singapore and Malaysia where our Peranakan culture still holds, we’ve got our Nonya kuehs. The Nonya kuehs is one of our traditional local delights which is part of our Singapore culinary and cultural heritage.
So while in Paris, the Parisians could be enjoying macarons and madeleine for tea while in Singapore, we chew on to bite-sizes of kuehs like Ang Ku Kueh ( Red Tortoise Cake) or Kueh Lapis (literally translated as the 9-storey cake) over a cup of Kopi (coffee).
Ang Ku Kueh Mould
These local confectioneries are somehow a representative of my childhood days where I would usually eat the savoury kuehs for breakfast and the sweet kuehs for desserts. Though I’ve been eating kuehs since young, I never knew how these Nonya kuehs were made by hand many years ago or the ingredients used to make these kuehs. But,today, at Lek Lim Nonya Cake Confectionery Shop, I am about to find out how Nonya kuehs were made.
One of the most popular Nonya kuehs among many locals here is Ang Ku Kueh. It is also know as the red tortoise cake because the cake resembles the shape of the tortoise’s shell. This sweet-tasting kueh is made up of glutinous rice flour and a sweet filling such as peanut or mung beans. It looks red because of the colouring added to the glutinous rice flour which forms the skin of the kueh. For me, I like the skin to be thin and chewy as it is easier to chew on and digest. Peanut or mung beans? Peanut! Even the owner of the space claims that the Ang Ku Kueh with peanut filling is his favourite.
Sweet Fillings for the Ang Ku Kueh : Grounded peanut paste and mung bean paste.
Gavan conducted a short hands-on kueh-making session where I had a chance mould and knead the dough to make an Ang Ku Kueh, a cake which is believe by the Chinese to bring longevity, prosperity and luck when eaten. Perhaps it’s rather inhumane to kill a tortoise to eat it, so the Chinese use rice flour and peanuts to create a mini cakes which resembles the back of the tortoise. Taking about creativity, maybe we should start make “shark fin cakes” too so that we don’t have to keep hunting sharks for their fins.
The Green Ku Kueh is another variety of the Ang Ku Kueh. Instead of the mung bean or peanut filling,the Green Ku Kueh has a sweet coconut filling which would be a treat for any coconut lovers out there.
Ready to be steamed til cooked.
The process of making Ang Ku Kueh seems rather easy but to eat Ang Ku Kueh with a thin,even and chewy glutinous rice skin with just the right amount of fresh ingredients to make the sweet fillings is no easy task and requires years of experience. When asked why Lek Lim Kuehs are still made by hand instead of machines, Gavan answered that the quality of the Kuehs could be better ensured and maintained when making by hands as compared to using machines. With the touch of the dough by our hands, we could tell how long the Ang Ku Kuehs would need to be steamed to be perfectly cooked. Even the best pastries and cakes in the world were all baked by hands of renown chefs because somehow the world has not invented spectacular baking equipment or machines to outsmart humans. Right here at Lek Lim, the confectioneries sold here were all made by hands.
It’s a labourious process for Lek Lim Nonya cake confectionery which insists that Lek Lim kuehs should be made from scratch by hands. Workers here have to start work around 3 am in the morning to prepare the freshly hand-made Lek Lim kuehs which is to be delivered to hawkers, caterers, hotels and restaurants across the island. It is no easy feat for this small family-run confectionery shop located under a HDB flat which does not relies on machines to make a mass production of its Kuehs. Their persistence of making kuehs by hand is indeed admirable.
So their Kueh-making factory is housed right at Lek Lim’s shop at Bedok. While shopping for kuehs, you could take a peek into their shop and watch their kuek-making process. Observe how the workers would knead, roll and mould the Peng Kuehs ( Glutinous rice kueh) and Soon Kuehs as you take your time to browse through their selection of kuehs available right at the counter. Soak into the sights of this traditionally family-run business confectionery shop which is quite a rare sight in our modernized city these days.
Besides Ang Ku Kueh, Lek Lim also has a huge selection of Nonya kuehs, savoury kuehs and fried delicacies.Gavan revealed that the fried delicacies are among the most popular ones out of all the cakes and pastries sold here. And it’s not difficult to figure out why because the curry puffs, fried spring roll and fried yam cake sold here were amazingly delicious. I was one of the many who get to sample and taste Lek Lim’s wide variety of cakes and pastries and even get them to share these delicacies with my family. Thank you, Lek Lim!
Some of the wooden moulds were almost a decade old as they were passed down from one generation to the next.
Besides making Ang Ku Kueh, Gavan also demonstrated to us how Pulut Inti, a steamed rice pudding served with sweet coconut toppings, is prepared and wrapped with banana leaf. The rice is stained blue with colour from the blue pea flower or Bunga Telang. The kuehs, like the Pulut Inti, were usually made colourful and pretty with coloured dyes so that it not only looks enticing but tastes good.
The Nonya kuehs here were made without eggs so they are suitable for vegans who can’t consume dairy products. Without eggs, these kuehs are also made healthier in the sense that it would have a lower cholesterol content. For the vegetarians, Lek Lim also offer several vegetarian kuehs like the vegetarian Soon Kueh or Peng Kueh. It’s great to know that they also do offer healthier options to customers here.
Fried Carrot Cake
It was all sold out even before I got here. Singaporeans do love eating fried food.
Lek Lim’s Kuehs are all halal-certified so their delicacies could be enjoyed by our Muslim friends. They could taste the Chinese kuehs like Ang Ku Kueh and Peng Kueh too.
Fried Spring Rolls
Curry Puffs : Sardines and Curry fillings. Each only costs a dollar. I love their crunchy skin texture and curry potato fillings.
Fresh out of the steamer.
Ang Ku Kueh for 50 cents each.
Now, I finally get to taste my own hand-made kuehs.
Nothing taste better than home-made kuehs which are part of our Singapore story and our cultural experiences.