Some people believe that the quality of kueh, a rice cake similar to mochi, correlates to the quality of the year.
Years ago, when Taiwanese couple Chou Pei-yi and Huang Teng-wei were vacationing in Thailand, some fellow travelers asked them about Taiwan’s iconic foods. They were stumped.
The question had been nagging at them. They had just taken a cooking class and wanted to set up something similar in Taiwan.
“We started listing out some famous night market snacks,” Huang says, “like beef noodle soup, braised pork over rice, soup dumplings, and bubble tea.” But none of the dishes really resonated with them.
When they returned to Taiwan, they started searching and landed on a dish called kueh that Chou’s grandmother used to make during Lunar New Year. They decided it was the perfect choice, a quintessentially Taiwan dish.
Simply put, kueh refers to any bite-sized steamed snack usually made with rice. It’s a term as broad as “cookie,” though kueh is geographically specific to a part of southern China called Fujian. If we want to get even more nitpicky, it’s actually specific to a southern part of Fujian called Minnan.
From Minnan, the snack spread all over Asia—to Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and beyond. Any place that traditionally grew rice was perfectly suited for making kueh. In Taiwan, it’s especially loved by migrants who came from Minnan centuries ago.
Kueh is often compared to Japanese mochi. Both are made with rice and have a chewy texture. The difference is that kueh is a bit firmer. But as with any pastry, kueh comes in all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors, and fillings.
Chou’s grandmother, whose family is from Minnan, likes to make kueh during traditional Chinese holidays. She alternates between savory versions filled with freshly grated turnip and sweet versions made with adzuki beans.
“She takes it really seriously,” Chou says, explaining that her grandmother believed in a direct correlation between the quality of kueh to quality of the new year. Kueh is also used as a traditional temple offering.
Today, Chou and Huang have their own cooking school to teach people how to make kueh. One of their most popular items is a tortoise-shaped cake stuffed with adzuki beans.
“The tortoise has a long life, so people think when you eat it, you’ll live a long time,” Chou says.
To make kueh, rice is first grounded up in a blender with water, and then squeezed in a muslin cloth until only the curds remain.
A tablespoon of the curd is boiled until it’s sticky and wet, and that’s mixed with the remaining curds to form a mass.
Everything is kneaded together with a bit of food dye and sugar, placed in a mold, and then steamed until the pastry comes out glossy.
At their school, Chou and Huang hope to revitalize the art of making kueh, which has fallen out of favor in Taiwan over dessert trends from abroad.
“Young Taiwanese people just aren’t doing this anymore,” Huang says. “If you think about it, the people who are making kueh are about 60 years old.
“I don’t think of kueh as less than a Japanese or Western sweet, whether it’s from an aesthetic or taste perspective. I think it’s beautiful. The question is, how can we convey that?”