Red is considered a lucky colour - hence the red paper decoration.
It’s actually a simple treat with very few ingredients, but tricky to make correctly. This kuih plays an important role in the Chinese New Year celebrations, it is used as an offering to the Kitchen God.
I didn’t pay much attention as a kid, but I think the Kitchen God makes a yearly report to the Big Boss (I think he’s called the Jade Emperor). Folks hope that after partaking in the sticky, sweet Tee Kuih, the Kitchen God’s mouth would be so glued up, he would only be able to pass on a glowing account of the family’s behaviour. Thus ensuring a year of good fortune ahead for the household.
We never made this at home, but my mum remembers helping her mother make this kuih as a child. Her mother would make lots of batches to sell. Mum was tasked with grinding the glutinous rice into flour using a stone grinder. Luckily there’s ready-made flour these days, and gas /electricity on demand! During my mum’s childhood, these kuih would be steamed over a charcoal fire, which had to be tended to ensure even cooking.
There are a fair few “pantang” (taboos/superstitions) associated with the making of this kuih. Mum recalls how her mother would cover the tins of tee kuih with a large muslin cloth (I’m assuming to stop drips from the steamer lid marring the surface of the kuih). Then her mother would sprinkle a mixture of rice grains and salt around the lid and the fire - to ward off any lurking gremlins I suppose.
One year, Mum remarked “how easy” it was to make the kuih, then wondered aloud what would happen if they didn’t turn brown. Her mother reprimanded her severely and unfortunately for my mum, that batch of kuih didn’t turn out right. Half the tins turned out brown and glossy while the other half remained white. Poor Mum copped it for apparently causing the bad batch because she'd talked too much!
In case you're wondering what that "bump" in the middle is - I'd stuck my finger in to test if it was cooked. Well it wasn't quite.
Fortunately for me, this batch of kuih turned out quite well, but I don’t think I will bother making them from scratch again because of the long steaming time involved! It took more than 8 hours of steaming to make these. They do look, smell and taste like the tee kueh I remember from childhood, so I’m pretty pleased with that. We’ll be eating one “fresh” and I’m going to let the other one go “stale” so that I can turn it into another favourite childhood snack – deep fried tee kueh (he he, it’s like the Malaysian version of a deep fried Mars Bar!)
Tee Kueh/ Nin Ko/ Kuih Bakul
(Mum had clipped this recipe from one of the Malaysian newspapers, and in the article, the authors credit this recipe to a place called the Berten Cookshop. I don’t know how old this clipping is, so I’m not sure if this place is still around. I made my own changes to the recipe, so here’s my adapted version)
Steamer or a wok with a trivet set in it
Small baking tins (2 very small ones or 1 small)
Banana leaves to line the mould – do try and get these because they impart a subtle, almost smoky flavour to the kuih. Without the leaves it will just taste sweet.Scald the leaves with hot water first to soften otherwise they will crack.
Pastry brush and water to wet down sides of saucepan when making caramel.
13 tbsp sugar (I used caster sugar)
at least 10 tbsp water (I found that I needed more than than this – explained in the recipe)
120g glutinous rice flour
(When the kuih has cooled, you can glaze the surface with a simple sugar syrup if desired, this keeps the kuih fresher for longer. I omitted this step because I don’t think it will last that long!)
First up, line one or two small tins (my square tin measured 10cms) with a few layers of banana leaves, overlapping the sides to make sure none of the final mixture can seep out.
In a small bowl, mix the flour with enough water to form a soft dough. The recipe originally recommended 5 tbsps, but I found that I needed about 9. Add the water a tablespoon at a time. Don’t be afraid to use your hands to mix the dough (no gluten remember?) – mine had the consistency of soft playdough, I could grab a fistful and squish it through my fingers.
Leave aside for 15 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, make some caramel. (The original recipe had a series of convoluted steps which I figured out were actually a way of making caramel syrup, so I simplified it). In a small heavy bottomed saucepan, place the 13 tbsps of sugar along with 5 tbsp of water. Stir carefully over low heat until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the mixture starts to simmer stop stirring, if there is unmelted sugar, pick up the saucepan and jiggle it a bit – be very careful of the hot sugar! Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to get rid of any sugar crystals. Don’t be afraid to do this as often as you like, the excess water will just evaporate anyway.
Keep cooking the sugar over medium high heat, jiggling the saucepan from time to time to make sure all the sugar has dissolved. When the mixture starts to turn a slight golden colour, watch carefully. Keep cooking a little while longer until it is deep golden but not brown. Use your nose, it should start to smell caramelly. Remove from heat and VERY CAREFULLY add two tablespoons of water to the sugar in the pan. It will hiss and bubble and maybe spit a bit. Stir with a long handled spoon and set aside to cool. Don’t let it cool for too long or it will harden – just until it’s warm enough to not cook the flour.
When the caramel syrup is just warm, carefully pour it into the ball of flour. Pour half in first, stir well, then add the other half. This should result in a soupy but well distributed mixture. Pour the mix through a sieve (there will be lumps) into the one/two prepared tins. The mix doesn’t rise during cooking but I think the shallower it is, the faster it takes to cook through.
The raw mixture before the steaming process
Here comes the hard part. Steam on medium heat for at least 8 hours until the white mixtures turns into something golden brown and slightly translucent. Check the steamer every so often and don’t forget to top up the water level (I had a couple of close calls!). Every once in a while, wipe down the inside of the steamer lid to prevent drips from falling on the kuih (or cover the kuih with muslin)).
It was very late and I decided to go to bed, but I didn’t think the kuih was quite ready, so this morning, I popped one back into the steamer and it seemed to cook a bit more. The square one was re-cooked and it looks much closer to a tee kueh than the round one.
The square one had a longer steaming time = brwoner looking kueh. I've popped the round one back in the steamer now, fingers crossed :)