Neighbour: The Tohs
Text and photography by Letitia Tan
Ji Xiang Confectionery sits beneath a quiet block, its yolky yellow signboard underlined by neon pink fluorescent lights too loud for its unassuming nature.
Its roots stem from the 1980s, when Mrs Toh tinkered with the recipe for ang ku kueh she had picked up from classes at a local community centre. She began making and selling these kuehs at her mum’s provision shop as a means to supplement the Tohs’ family income after business in the shipping industry, where Mr Toh had worked, slowed. Back then, most kuehs were manufactured by machines and often sported thick, rubbery skins. Demand for the Tohs’ light, soft handmade kuehs grew steadily, and they extended sales to various pau shops before eventually setting up their own space in 1989. Today, their team of 13 fulfills the orders to an organised beat.
To begin, brown bristled brushes dust sheets of banana leaves under a spraying tap as any remnants seep away in a chalky liquid. The sheets, left to drip-dry, are then wiped and cut by a machine into octagons for the kuehs to eventually rest on.
The fresh filings (including traditional ground peanuts, split beans, grated coconut and yam) are steamed, minced and whirred into sticky pastes. They are kept cool, making them easier to work with later in the day.
On neighbouring tables, the stretchy dough is rolled into palm-sized balls, stuffed with the appropriate filling, before being pressed gently into pink plastic moulds. The dough takes on an oval, shell-like shape, tattooed with lines and ridges; the Chinese characters for Ji Xiang* are inked in its centre, in place of the ang ku kueh’s usual mark of longevity. The finished shells are placed delicately on waiting banana leaves and left to rest on dotted metal trays until they are ready to be steamed. The team roll, meld, press, uncover, rest; roll, meld, press, uncover, rest; roll, meld, press, uncover, rest; talking and laughing, occasionally falling into silence.
* Ji Xiang (吉祥) translates to “auspicious” from Mandarin and ang ku kueh (红龟糕) to “red tortoise cake” from Hokkien.
Visit Ji Xiang Confectionery at 1 Everton Park, #01-33.
Read more in The U Press N˚7 (Singapore edition).