“In the old days, we used a wooden board on a pivot like a seesaw. Attached to one end was a heavy rock, and the women would step on the other end to land blows on the rice while the men went out peddling the kueh.” - Kerwin Chng third-generation owner of Queensway Lau Tan Tutu Kueh
Tutu Kueh’s humble rice flour fragrance comes in a floral shape, sitting pretty on a green pandan square, holding sweetness in the form of either coconut or peanuts in its belly. (Courtesy of Kerwin Chng)
If Singapore had a national dish, many would contend for a spot. Try as we might, however, it’s difficult to determine the exact inventor of a dish.
But one snack in Singapore has been quietly steaming in the background, secure in its beginnings. Its humble rice flour fragrance comes in a floral shape, sitting pretty on a green pandan square, holding sweetness in the form of either coconut or peanuts in its belly. We are talking about the Tutu Kueh.
When asked, many believed the Tutu Kueh to be a creation from some provincial village in China, or from a neighbouring Malaysian state. The truth, nonetheless, is that this kueh is uniquely Singaporean.
Kerwin Chng from Queensway Lau Tan Tutu Kueh is a third-generation owner of this comfort snack business. A former Japanese cuisine chef, he was faced with limited career progression, and when asked by his mother, took over as business developer of this family business six years ago.
The story goes that when Kerwin’s grandfather first came to Singapore, he started out as a barber. But he soon found footing in the food business, when a group of individuals from the same village as him, all with the surname Tan, came together to invent this special kueh.
It is said that Kerwin’s grandfather invented this special kueh, together with a group of individuals from the same village as him, all with the surname Tan. (Courtesy of Kerwin Chng)
Taking inspiration from the Malay Putu Piring and the Indian Putu Mayam, the Tutu Kueh finishes the local racial marriage with Chinese rice flour. However, their rice flour is pounded, not ground, differentiating it from standard rice flour.
“In the old days, we used a wooden board on a pivot like a seesaw,” Kerwin describes. “Attached to one end was a heavy rock, and the women would step on the other end to land blows on the rice while the men went out peddling the kueh.” This arduous task meant that one day’s work from one lady would only result in one or two kilograms worth, ironically making the flour more costly than its filling.
There was no compromise to the texture achieved by this method, and so the tradition from 1949 continues to this day by Queensway Lau Tan Tutu Kueh. Machines might have replaced the literal legwork, but manual sifting is still done, both at the factory and on-site where the kuehs are prepared. This dedication to a heritage recipe is what marks this brand apart from the many other replicas in the market.
Another thing that has remained unchanged is the steamer.
“Over the years, we’ve experimented with a few other designs, but we found that this still worked the best,” admits Kerwin. “The steamer keeps the precise pressure needed to prevent clumpy or crumbly skin.”
This speaks highly of well-researched cultural devices and methods that our forefathers devoted their lives to, which withstands the test of time and technological innovation. Words like “artisanal” and “craftsman” may be bandied about profusely these days, but these examples from Singapore’s history truly embody these trending words.
Although the snack once came in two sizes, the large one was soon phased out because of its long preparation time at the kiosk. The smaller sizes soon became the default, and Kerwin presents me with pre-war moulds that have shifted slightly in design, with one even having a coin in the middle, but maintaining its size.
Kerwin Chng, the third-generation owner of Queensway Lau Tan Tutu Kueh, and his mother. (Morgan Awyong)
Moving forward, Kerwin is optimistic that the Tutu Kueh will always have a place in local cuisine. Even though regulars can easily differentiate them based on their ingredient (the rustic brown coconut shreds instead of the vibrant red), he has branded themselves with a logo, putting emphasis on his family’s food history with videos and memorabilia from the past showcased at his shops.
His branches in Queensway, Ion Orchard, Chinatown and Bedok have been seeing a revival, and he’s glad that people are once again identifying with our local traditional snack. He feels that during SG50, the awareness grew, and beyond designer items like erasers and notepads that replicate the iconic motif of the kueh, people are once again craving for that homegrown taste.
But he also realises that the new age of social media means that sometimes, novelty plays a part in developing new interest. Because of this, he has introduced chocolate and red bean fillings to his menu, both of which are being taken up by a younger crowd. Most recently, his Ion branch has also started the pink Tutu Kueh, a colour that has nostalgic links to other comfort food like the Png Kueh and Bandung drink.
Despite these evolutions, Kerwin knows that it is important to hold fast to his food heritage, and will continue to maintain the integrity of this local invention, hopefully for many generations to come.
Machines might have replaced the literal legwork, but manual sifting is still done, both at the factory and on-site where the kuehs are prepared. (Morgan Awyong)