Tong Heng Egg Tarts
Memory anchors take many forms – a catchy Beatles song, a classic print, a keepsake. But by far the most evocative is aroma, specifically the smell of certain foods, like the pastries your grandma baked. You are reminded of a time when sinking your teeth into a freshly baked tart felt like heaven.
“Yes, my mother always said that grandma did it best,” said Ana Fong, fourth generation proprietor at Tong Heng. “And we are trying not to introduce new things to the recipe so as not to alter the original flavour.” Besides maintaining the taste, Ana explained that the preservation of heritage also pays homage to the efforts of its founders.
The quaint kitchen itself still exudes an old Chinese charm. Walking into it felt like stepping back in time. There is the smell of joss sticks from a red altar, harmoniously mingled with that of browning pastries emanating from the ovens. The beeping of the oven’s alarms interjects the casual banter between the workers in Chinese dialect.
“We form a mini production line here,” explained Ana as she rolled the dough, then passed it on to be pressed into diamond shaped moulds. But where was the egg custard?
Fong laughed at my enthusiam for the sweet tart filling: “Hang on. See that lady over there? She has to visually inspect every tart shell, seeking out and rectifying the flawed ones, before sending them on to be filled.”
I asked Fong why the egg tarts have remained popular even after so many decades. “Well, we try not to complicate things. Some things are still better done manually, old-school style, like using our hands to create the tart shells,” said Fong while demonstrating her adeptness of moulding that comes with years of experience.
Observing the operations in the kitchen had me believe that nailing the taste profile is just a small part of the story, and that staying true to one’s roots despite the unrelenting march of progress is perhaps why Tong Heng’s customers keep coming back for more. It’s the taste of nostalgia that they’re buying.
285 South Bridge Road, tel. 6223 3649
HarriAnns Nonya Table
I have to steal a line from Gordon Ramsay and say: “Just by looking at it, I already want to eat it.” Such is the importance of visual appeal. It’s no wonder that the vibrant colours of the rainbow lapis have made it a favourite with kids here of every generation.
“We prepare the rice mix in various colours. Each layer is steamed for five minutes before we pour in the next,” explained Alan Tan, who runs the business with his sister, Sharon, after taking over the reins from their parents. “Using the machine increases production but it just doesn’t feel the same.”
HarriAnns is also known for its ondeh ondeh – grated coconut covered pandan rice balls with gula melaka centres. Alan showed how each delicate ball is made. Another customer expressed my own amazement: “You mean it’s all made by hand?” There is something romantic about anything made by hand that suggests special attention has to be paid. In this case, HarriAnn’s slogan couldn’t be more apt – Happiness is Handmade.
Bugis Junction Towers, tel. 62381200
Lau Tan Queensway Kueh Tutu
Despite seeing one sports apparel store after another, I knew I was on track when I detected the aromatic scent of pandan leaves. It led me to Lau Tan and its delicious steamed treats. “It’s just rice, sugar and coconut filling,” said Kerwin Chng humbly. What the third generation of the original kueh tutu founder didn’t say was the amount of effort that goes into making them. Each individual pandan leaf is cleaned, wiped and cut by hand into the delicate squares of green. The rice powder is not a convenient premix from a supplier, but painstakingly pounded by hand from fresh rice.
While a machine does the pounding now, sieving is still a manual process. “The machine cannot feel for uncrushed bits, only the hand can,” said Chng.
“I am here to push boundaries, but even if I reinvent the process, I will never dilute the heritage of this traditional snack.” Chng, who previously worked as a culinary chef, has daringly tweaked the old recipe to suit today’s health-conscious taste buds.
Food is fuel for the body. But nostalgic treats like these also feed the part of our brain that craves feel-good memories. So we can take heart in knowing that every time we bite into these, we are keeping our heritage alive too.
Queensway Shopping Centre, 02-47, tel. 98174793
(Written by Koh Zhili, first published September 2015. Photography by Andy Wong of Rave Photography)