Food Photo Essays

Ang Ku Kueh – Significance, Traditions, And Its Relevance Today

by Cao Mingmin (NTU History Programme)

Ang Ku Kueh, which translates to “Red Tortoise Cake”, is a small oval-shaped Chinese treat that traces its history from Southern Fujian, China before making its way to Southeast Asia. Although Ang Ku Kueh remains popular today, its significance in Chinese religious and cultural traditions is often overlooked.

Ang-Ku-Kueh-significance-traditions-and-its-relevance-today

Ang Ku Kueh, which translates to “Red Tortoise Cake” in Hokkien, is a small oval-shaped Chinese treat consisting of a soft, sticky glutinous rice flour skin wrapped with a filling that is usually sweet. Its distinctive design that resembles a tortoise shell sets it apart from other treats. The kueh traces its history from southern Fujian, China – in Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, before making its way along migration routes across maritime Southeast Asia. Although Ang Ku Kueh remains popular today as a tea-time snack, its significance in Chinese religious and cultural traditions is often overlooked.

Ang Ku Kueh

The making of Ang Ku Kueh starts from grinding and mixing the fillings. After that, strips of peanut fillings are divided equally to be wrapped in dough skin.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

Ang Ku Kueh

Ensuring consistency throughout the process, including the separation of dough despite it being done by hand, is essential to making good Ang Ku Kueh.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

In ancient China, tortoises were believed to be used as sacrifices to Chinese deities in seeking good fortune and longevity. However, as live tortoises were not easily sourced, turtle-shaped offerings were gradually developed as alternatives. As the name suggests, Ang Ku Kuehs are traditionally red in colour and have a chewy texture when eaten. In Chinese culture, the colour red here symbolises joy and happiness, while the tortoise shape signifies longevity, auspiciousness, wealth, and completeness.

Ang Ku Kueh

After grinding and dividing the fillings, the Ang Ku Kueh is moulded by hand.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

Ang Ku Kueh

Lastly, finely moulded Ang Ku Kueh will be steamed for approximately five minutes.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

From then on, Ang Ku Kuehs became an important kueh for offering on many occasions such as Chinese New Year, birthday of the Jade Emperor and in the celebrations of many other Chinese deities. By offering Ang Ku Kueh on ritual altars, devotees hope that the sweetness of the kueh will sweeten the mouths of the deities so that they will speak positively about the devotee in front of the Jade Emperor. During these religious festivals, Ang Ku Kuehs are usually bought in sets of 12 as it is considered auspicious. Another specially shaped Ang Ku Kueh that is offered on altar tables is the Money Kueh (钱糕), which is moulded from a design that depicts a string of copper coins.

Ang Ku Kueh

The various colours of Ang Ku Kueh indicate the different fillings in it. Medium-sized Ang Ku Kueh (Tiong Ku), Ang Ee, Money Kueh and Ka Ta Kueh are also a part of the assortment offered.
2021, Courtesy of Ji Xiang Confectionery.

According to Kelvin Toh, the second-generation owner of Ji Xiang Confectionery, the different coloured kuehs indicate the different kinds of fillings. In the 1980s, Ji Xiang expanded its assortment of fillings as tastes diversified. Although there were many colours to choose from, red-coloured Ang Ku Kuehs of mung bean fillings are the traditional option in preparing for these occasions. In a year, the three busiest periods for Ji Xiang are the Jade Emperor’s birthday, Qing Ming Festival week, and the Hungry Ghost Festival month. On these important dates, only red-coloured Ang Ku Kuehs are made to speed up the process and meet demands.

Ang Ku Kueh

A pair of Ka Ta Kueh stacked in a box and ready for collection. The Ka Ta Kueh is shaped with a larger mould containing a clear design of a tortoise. Its size is approximately as big as an adult’s palm.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

In addition to being religious offerings, Ang Ku Kuehs are also used in commemorating a newborn’s first month or the birthdays of elders. Eating the kueh and distributing them to relatives and friends during these occasions represent blessings for the child and longevity for the elder in the family. A notable social practice that has recently gained in popularity is stepping on a pair of big-sized Ang Ku Kueh, known as ‘Ka Ta Kueh’ (腳踏粿), traditionally seen when a baby turns one year old. The stepping on the Ka Ta Kueh, followed by stepping into a new pair of shoes symbolises a smooth journey in life, and the parents’ wishes that the child will be down-to-earth in his or her future endeavors. As Kelvin recalled, the practice became more popular in 2015 after a video made in commemoration of SG50 included scenes of “stepping on the Ka Ta Kueh”. Before 2015, Ka Ta Kuehs were only made a few times in a year. Now, Ji Xiang sells 20-30 pairs a week.

Ang Ku Kueh

Wooden moulds for Money Kueh and Ka Ta Kueh are less common in the market today. Without these moulds, the traditions and practices that depended on such equipment may soon disappear.
2021, Photographs taken by Cao Mingmin and Soe Wai Yan Linn.

The resurgence of this practice reflects how some traditions are still relevant and important within the Chinese community today. Stepping on the Ka Ta Kueh represents the enduring desire of parents to give their children a smooth start to life. Heritage businesses like Ji Xiang play an important role in keeping such social practices practicable. The significance of food heritage businesses lies not only in the food it sells, but also in its role of supporting our social practices and transmitting them to future generations. Greater awareness and understanding of these practices can therefore allow us to better appreciate our intangible cultural heritage that has since shaped our cultural and communal identity.

Cao Mingmin (NTU History Programme)

The NTU History Programme strives to be a leading centre for researching and teaching interdisciplinary, Asian, and world/transnational history, while pushing innovative and immersive approaches to learning about and exploring Singapore's past and heritage. It welcomes students, scholars, and interested members of the public to join us in these endeavours! Find out more about our programmes, research, and events at http://www.soh.ntu.edu.sg/Programmes/history/Pages/Home.aspx or find us on Twitter (@NTUHistory)!

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