Ti Kuih to sweeten the words of the Gods

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Ti Kuih (sweet sticky rice cake) in Mandarin (nian gao) literally means ‘year cake’ which also echoes the sound of rising abundance or prosperity for the coming year.



The Kitchen God, regarded as the inventor of fire leaves the house on the 23rd of the last month to report to heaven the behaviour of the family. Although the household would have done all they could to ensure a favourable report, no chances are taken and the Kitchen God's mouth and lips are sweetened, and if need be, sealed with Ti Kuih. With lips sufficiently sugarcoated and safely closed, he is given a grand send off, only to return once more on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Ti Kuih is also offered on the 8th night of Chinese New Year as the Hokkien community pai Tee Kong (paying homage to the Jade Emperor, also known as the God of Heaven). The 9th day is an especially significant one for Hokkiens. Some traditionalists venture as far as to say that for the Hokkiens, the 9th day is even more important than the New Year itself, for it was on this day that the entire clan of Hokkiens were spared from being massacred.

Preparation begins on the morning of the 8th day, Hokkiens will rush to the market to buy all the essential items needed for the celebration – sugar cane stalks, roasted pigs, cooked meats, Ti Kuih and fruits. At the stroke of midnight, they will give thanks to the Jade Emperor. Firecrackers are let off and the night sky is ablaze with skyrockets and fireworks. 

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Making Ti Kuih involves only three basic ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar and  water – however it takes a very, very long time to cook, almost 10 to 12 hours of steaming is required. Hence, alternative recipes call for the use of brown sugar and/or caramelised sugar to shorten the steaming time. 

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Ms Tan has been making Ti Kuih for many years. She plies her goods at the Jelutong wet market and her regular customers book way in advance knowing that the quality of her Ti Kuih is guaranteed. She uses her family recipe that has been perfected through generations. Even the Ti Kuih tins were crafted by her father. Cecilia noted that the long steaming process that seems daunting is very much needed to caramelised the sugar while adding that smoky aroma in making authentic Ti Kuih.

Everything about making ti kuih is quite laborious, from lining the tins with banana leaves to steaming. The steaming process calls for low heat of up to 12 hours or more if necessary, until the Ti Kuih has a nice dark brown colour. Constant monitoring is required as the steamer should always have enough water for the cooking process. The batter should change from pure white to light brown, then golden brown when the sugar is caramelised and a darker shade when ready.

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Ms Tan noted that the Ti Kuih should be allowed to set overnight before removing them from the tins and trimming off the leaf for a neat edge. Ti Kuih is best left aside to harden for a week or more before cutting.

Soft, fresh Ti Kuih taste good with grated coconut. Harden ones could be steamed again to regain its soft sticky texture.

Ti Kuih © Adrian Cheah

Slices of Ti Kuih sandwich between sweet potato slices and yam, coated with batter and deep fried till golden makes a delicious snack. If you are in Penang and would like to sample these scrumptious delights, drop by the Goreng Pisang (banana fritters) stall along Free School Road or the Penang Tanjung Bungah Goreng Pisang stall (located on the left hand side of the road leading to Batu Feringghi). The crispy batter encases soft buttery potatoes within the 'Food for the Gods' as it core, promising a mouthful of interesting texture and taste. Like the Kitchen God, you will only discover why Ti Kuih makes such a satisfying treat.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated December 2017