Culture to sink your teeth into
First, a short, flaky crust. Then, a crumbly filling, studded with sesame seeds, orange peel, fried shallots and melon seeds. Finally, in quick succession, a delicate sweetness, a moreish savouriness and a lingering peppery aroma.
This distinctive mouthfeel and medley of flavours are the mark of Chuan Ji Bakery’s signature Hainanese traditional pastry, su yan bing. What makes this biscuit even more special is that it is a unique Singapore Hainanese confection, birthed locally in the 1920s.
Yes, there is more to Singapore food culture and heritage than just chicken rice and chili crab, and the Singapore Heritage Festival aims to tease out these lesser-known aspects of Singapore’s rich heritage through its annual celebration. The festival’s programme includes heritage trails, open houses, performances, as well as a tour of Chuan Ji Bakery in Macpherson Mall.
The bakery, set up by Mr Chong Suan, 44, and his mother, Madam Wong Chih Lian, 79, is no more than two years-old, but it traces its legacy back to almost a century ago, when his grandmother opened Nam Tong Lee Confectionery in Purvis Street. The traditional bakery was popular with the Hainanese community, and it was his grandmother who came up with the shop’s signature su yan bing that later became famous in Singapore, especially among the local Hainanese community.
After his grandmother died in the late-2000s, the bakery ceased operations and Mr Chong found himself longing for the taste of his childhood; other versions of su yan bing in the market did not come close to his grandmother’s pastry. The thought eventually crossed his mind: What if he gave up his career as an engineer to become a baker and preserve his grandmother’s tasty creation?
Unable to shake off the idea, Mr Chong, who had previously no intention of carrying on the family’s legacy, began learning how to bake, in particular, su yan bing, from his mother. He spent evenings after work and the weekends perfecting his technique and the recipe.
It took four years of trial-and-error and repeated practice for him to be satisfied with his mastery of skill and the taste of his handmade pastry, before he quit his job as an engineer to open Chuan Ji Bakery.
He hopes the family tradition will be “preserved for a long time,” but he does not wish to compel his young son to continue the legacy. “I will just carry on right now and see what I can do.”
Foodie Tip: The best time to savour the pastry, says Mr Chong, is one to two days after purchase, when the biscuit crust has fully absorbed the flavours of the ingredients and is most aromatic.
Details about Singapore Heritage Festival 2019 here.