Sharon Low: Earliest Memories to Making Heritage Foods from Scratch

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It is all about balance when it comes to making Peranakan Kueh. It is about the ingredients, flavours and texture; how these details guide your intimate gastronomical journey through heritage and tradition. At Peranakan Khek, a back-to-basics approach is used to allow the ingredients to shine in every individual recipe.

So why Peranakan Khek?

This small business is found to bring back the craft and traditional technique of making these sweets the right way. ‘Khek’ (pronounced ‘cake’), the Hokkien term for Hakka, also means ‘guest’. A reflection of what this brand stands for: the spirit of sharing, heritage, family and community.

B-Side interviews chef-owner Sharon Low of Peranakan Khek, a purveyor of traditional, handmade Peranakan kueh located in Singapore’s Jalan Besar area.

Describe your creation process.

Working on heritage food means that everyone is going to have some sort of expectation of how something should taste. Personally, I look to my earliest memories of eating Nonya kueh and try to recall the situation, the feeling, the taste. I’ll choose one or two to work on and try to research as much as I can about the recipes and understand the ingredients. Usually I’ll have a flavour and texture that I want to achieve in mind, then the bulk of the work goes into rigorous recipe-testing in the kitchen. It takes a lot of fine-tuning and refining before a recipe is finalised. I have a group of people I trust whom I gather feedback from. The process is tedious, which is why our menu is quite tight and we add to it very sporadically.

Describe a regular day at Peranakan Khek.

The start of our day varies depending on the workload. On busier days we start at 6am. The first half of the day is dedicated to fulfilling orders and setting up the retail counter, which entails steaming/frying/baking kueh, baking chiffon cakes, slicing, arranging and packing. The second half of the day is dedicated to prep work, which is called mise en place. This is the time when we’re processing raw ingredients (cleaning pandan/banana leaves, zesting limes etc.), cooking sauces/fillings and preparing everything we need for the next morning’s production. I don’t have an hour-by-hour schedule because our roles change every day depending on the need.

Are the colours in the respective kueh symbolic, and why?

The red in Ang Ku Kueh symbolises prosperity and blessing. However, most of the time (well, with the obvious exception of Kueh Lapis Sagu), kuehs take on the colour of the natural ingredients that are used such as pandan, gula melaka and black glutinous rice flour.

What's the most important thing in kueh making?

Half the battle is won if you work with good ingredients. Sourcing for high quality gula melaka, coconut, tapioca and even eggs contributes significantly to the final product. It’s easy to cut corners these days, which is why the quality of kueh in Singapore can be so varied. Nonya kueh recipes make use of the most humble ingredients from the region, and they are allowed to shine when treated properly.

What's something that people don't know about the work that you do?

We often get questions about our pricing, which is why we try to take the time to explain how we do things. We’re not a factory. Everything we make is from scratch, by hand, in small batches and without the use of preservatives. The quality of our ingredients, the labour intensiveness of our processes and the short shelf-life of our products make our prices less elastic than other businesses. In addition, we also aim to pay our employees a fair wage. I find great meaning in my work, and can only hope that Singaporeans will put more value in our heritage food.

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