Mdm Tan Gek Eng shares with us the story behind her family’s kueh tutu and the hard work and perseverance that made her dream into a reality – and into a thriving business.
As a little girl, Tan Gek Eng would go to school in the morning, then spend the afternoon and night peddling kueh tutu with her father. They went everywhere from Sembawang to Bukit Timah, from Redhill to Queenstown. He would drop her home at 10:30pm, then soldier on till 4am. She eventually left school at 15. But she grew up to continue her father’s legacy, now running three stalls selling kueh tutu across Singapore, commanding steady streams of customers hungry for the the tender, white flower-shaped treat that, unbeknownst to many, was created here in Singapore in the late 1940s.
Kueh tutu has its origins in China, where locals made song gao, a rice flour cake with no filling. It was sold along roadsides, served with Chinese tea. When her father, Tan Hay Swee, and his clan immigrated to Singapore, they created kueh tutu. Some sources speculate that kueh tutu is related to the highly similar Malay treat putu piring, with its gula melaka (coconut sugar) filling. After all, putu could easily have evolved to tutu. But according to Mdm Tan, it was the distinctive sound of the steamer boiling, or the hokkien word for ‘push’, referring to the seller’s pushcart, that birthed the name, which conjures up not just an enticing image of the steaming-hot snack, but its distinctive fragrance.
The kueh tutu experience
Part of the experience of having kueh tutu is waiting for it; with aromatic clouds of steam wafting about as one observes the kueh-maker deftly filling moulds, steaming and then uncovering them moments later to reveal fresh, irresistible tutu cakes. The wait is always too long, but worth it. The flour crumbles in one’s mouth, releasing the sweet, warm filling. After that, all that remains are pieces of pandan leaves.
The original kueh tutu had a larger, flatter shape. Mdm Tan’s worker, a close family friend, insists it is tastier – with a thin layer of flour and more filling. Later, the flower mould was invented with a five-cent design in the middle, which Mdm Tan guesses was decorative. The final and current design is the one we have come to know – a simple flower shape but immediately recognisable.
The process of preparing ingredients is, to say the least, laborious. Peanut is prepared twice a week with red sugar, whilst fresh coconut is prepared almost daily, boiled with gula melaka (palm sugar), red sugar and pandan leaves. Hours of work go into preparing the flour, which is the most important element. An early pounding floor-to-ceiling contraption was used and required the body weight of the person standing in the device to activate the movement of a huge pestle. Continual sifting and pounding made up a tedious cycle. Today, an electric pounder is used, but the flour is still sifted by hand. And while low-grade flour was used in the past, Mdm Tan is now able to afford Grade One Thai rice flour – and swears by it.
Growing up on tutu
Born in 1957, Mdm Tan has a lifetime of tutu memories. Her mother and grandmother would prepare the flour in the morning, while her father handled the fillings and pandan leaves. Then began their rounds. Like most hawkers, he would shout to announce their arrival and solicit orders. She was terribly shy and asked him not to be raucous; he taught her that hawkers have to make their presence known. In estates with low-rise Housing Development Board flats, people would lower baskets with their order and some cash. Acting as a runner, she would read the order to her father, then place the freshly made kueh tutu and change in the basket. The fresh cakes would then be hauled up to eager mouths. She enjoyed every moment of it – from helping out to the thrill of visiting different parts of Singapore.
But it was also frightening as they had to avoid government officials, as there was no licensing system for hawkers yet. Officials would issue them summons while they were preoccupied with serving customers, leaving the chit in their tin without bothering to stop the offending father-and-daughter pair. Court summons were a monthly affair and once her father found out it was cheaper for her to attend court on his behalf, she became the family representative. Meanwhile, hawking persisted healthily and the kueh tutu legacy began to take root.
Mdm Tan learnt the ropes on the go, and was able to play the role of kueh-maker with her father at the age of 14. The next year, she left school. “I don’t like to study; I like to work. I wanted to make money for the family,” she said. Thirsty for real work experience, she worked various jobs but her heart pointed her back to kueh tutu. In the late 80s, she ran her father’s Queensway Shopping Centre stall on the second level with her sister, before they shifted downstairs.
Kueh tutu lives on
Today, Lau Tan Tutu Kueh is back on the second floor, nestled amid bright rows of hiking shoes and sports bags. Here, one can also find cup corn, tea leaf eggs, waffles and muah chee, made by a bevy of mostly older ladies. Besides the usual kueh tutu fillings, Mdm Tan also sells chocolate and red bean flavours, which were created by her second son. A former chef, he now helps to manage the business and is responsible for their other two branches in ION and Chinatown Point. Mdm Tan fondly recalls how as a child, he would offer assistance when he saw her hard at work preparing the flour.
With three branches under her belt, Mdm Tan has come a long way from the little girl who enjoyed accompanying her father all over the island as his humble business took shape. “I never thought I would have a big business, it just came naturally from my interest,” she says. Her dream is to further expand the business but she is unsure as she is getting on in years – despite showing great vitality for a lady nearing her 60s. Nonetheless, she is happy her son is getting his feet wet as a third-generation hawker.
“From my father, I learnt patience, hard work, and a good temper,” she says. In this art form, the greatest challenge is perfection – achieving the right consistency. Whilst other stalls may add glutinous rice flour to make the kueh tutu stickier and hold up better, she uses only top quality rice flour and skills good enough to handle this tricky ingredient. Her son has been told never to adulterate the flour used. He probably never will, so as to continue his grandfather’s legacy in the purest way possible. How many people today can say they have an inheritance as precious as this? In a world where the fast and new dominate, it is heartening to know that there is still space for a humble home-grown creation, a dream come true for a now grown-up little girl.
Words and photographs by Ng Xi Jie
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir