Neighbour: The Tengs
Text and photography by Leticia Tan
It is four in the morning. Surrounding flats may be rightfully resting but the food centre is bright with fluorescent cheer. The stalls are mostly shuttered with the exception of the glowing blue signboard that frames Tanglin Halt Original Peanut Pancake’s immaculate space. Here, the Tengs are well into preparations of their fabled pancakes or 面煎粿 (min jiang kueh in Teochew) for the forthcoming day.
The pancakes are sold in two forms: a larger peanut-and-sugar-flavoured version and miniature rounds filled with other kinds of flavours*. Mr Teng stands before two warmed pans and spreads batter across one’s base, painting a thin layer along its sides. He fishes for cookie cutter rings, laying them in the neighbouring empty pan to prepare flavour-filled pancakes separately as the peanut pancake’s base batter puffs in the first pan. After scattering sugar and sandy ground peanuts across the pancake’s base, he folds it in half in a swift motion, lifting it to a wire rack to cool before returning to prepare the ringed pancakes. Between batches, he combines naturally leavened starter with sugar, a splash of alkaline and water, whisking them thoroughly, his metal spoon knocking frantically on the sides of his upsized teh-tarik (milk tea) tin, preparing more batter.
Mrs Teng arranges the ringed pancakes beside her wooden board, cutting each ring’s frayed edges, slipping them out of their moulds. She lifts them onto oversized cupcake holders, marking each flavour with different plain/flowered prints. Each batch is seemingly uniform but different in their slightly tanner tops, occasional chips and fillings snuggled in a corner—imperfections a machine may have weeded out.
For the peanut pancake, shaped and roughly sized like a giant taco, she dusts the insides generously with more ground peanuts before cleaving it in half with her chopper, separating the clinging ends with her scissors and apportioning them to be served. The resulting pancake is chewier and denser than other similar pancakes that one may be accustomed to. Spilling with finely ground peanuts, it is at times reminiscent of muah chee (peanut- and sugar-coated glutinous rice balls).
As a team, husband and wife continue their seamless and laborious rhythm until they’re out of ingredients for the day. On their days off, they spend their time sourcing for ingredients, roasting and grinding 60kg of peanuts, preparing the different pastes in a separate factory space, ensuring the freshest fillings. As a result, they maintain that their pancakes are relatively healthy, jokingly gesturing at their slender frames despite having eaten the pancakes for decades.
* The Tengs experimented with various flavours before deciding to fill their pancakes with hearty heaps of red bean, black sesame, salted bean, pandan leaf green bean and yam paste. Some excluded flavours include lotus paste and coconut because the former was too oily and maintaining the freshness of the latter proved too much of a risk.
Visit Tanglin Halt Original Peanut Pancake at Block 48, Tanglin Halt Road, Tanglin Halt Market Stall 16, Singapore.
Read more in The U Press N˚9 (Singapore edition).