Full steam ahead for thnee kuih maker this Chinese New Year

Steaming hot: Aun Kean checking and preparing the thnee kuih for his customer in Lengkok Burma, Pulau Tikus.

THIS festive season is a busy time for thnee kuih (sticky glutinous rice cake) maker Neoh Aun Kean, who has 30,000 orders to handle.

He makes his thnee kuih thetraditional way using banana leaves and any other man would be worried about the supply of leaves but it is the last thing on his worry list.

That is because he has a small banana plantation of about 300 Pisang Batu plants behind his house in Lengkok Burmah, Pulau Tikus, Penang.

“I tend to the plants carefully without spraying pesticide as the leaves are the treasure but not the fruit.

“The Pisang Batu has too many seeds which makes it almost impossible to eat, unless you mash and strain the fruit to make cekodok,” he said as he harvested some leaves on Saturday.

Family operation: Cheang (right) wiping the banana leaves before daughter Hui Mian lines the tins with the leaves at their house in Lengkok Burmah, Pulau Tikus.
Family operation:Cheang (right) wiping the banana leaves before daughter Hui Mian lines the tins with the leaves at their house in Lengkok Burmah, Pulau Tikus.

After harvesting the leaves, Aun Kean, 50, will wash and smoke them.

“The leaves of this specific banana tree are most suitable for making thnee kuih as they are not only fragrant but retain their green colour after smoking.

“The leaves are also tougher and firmer and will not break easily,” he said.

Aun Kean inherited the banana plants from his grandmother, who used to harvest the leaves to sell to nasi lemak stalls.

His old village house with a zinc roof is warm to the point of being steamy but he and his helpers — wife Cheang Choay Leng, 40, and daughter Hui Mian, 15, — do not seem to be bothered by the heat as they line the tins with smoked banana leaves.

With their help, Aun Kean measures and pours the mixture of glutinous rice flour and sugar with precision into the prepared tins.

The tins, filled to only two-third full, are then put on a big bamboo tray and covered with a piece of cloth before more trays prepared in the same manner are stacked on top.

Then, the tins are steamed in a wok that can contain 15 trays.

“You cannot fill the tins too full as the mixture, when cooking, will boil over.

“Covering the thnee kuih with cloth will prevent water from dropping onto it,” he said, adding that he and his family could make about 1,500 thnee kuih a day.

Always interested in baking from young, Aun Kean, who is a baker and breadcrumb maker, started making thnee kuih 30 years ago after watching women in his neighbourhood making it.

“I helped them out and some of them gave me tips and pointers. I listened and learned diligently,” he said.

He also steams the thnee kuih using firewood instead of gas.

“Firewood ensures more fragrance and the heat makes the thnee kuih longer-lasting. Gas-steamed thnee kuih grows mouldy faster.

“It needs to be steamed for 12 hours,” he said.

Done with precision: Aun Kean pouring the mixture of glutinous rice flour and sugar into the tins.
Done with precision: Aun Kean pouring the mixture of glutinous rice floor and sugar into the tins.

The secret to making chewy thnee kuih, according to Aun Kean, lies in fire control and also the kneading process.

He said that traditionally, the thnee kuih- making process came with several superstitious beliefs.

For example, one cannot ask if the thnee kuih is cooked while it is being steamed and people who wear black cannot walk past the wok steaming thnee kuih or the delicacy will be spoiled.

However, Aun Kean said he dumped those beliefs about 20 years ago.

“There must be a reason why the thnee kuih will spoil while cooking. In the past, the old people just want to blame it on others.

“One day, I was making thnee kuih as usual and I opened the wok cover to check on them.

“At that moment, a funeral procession passed by. I heard people say in Hokkien “khi liao la” (it’s a gone case).

“They were sure that my batch would be spoiled as it was bad luck for a funeral procession to pass by. Imagine my worries!

“But to my surprise, the thnee kuih turned out perfect.

“From then on I ignored the superstitions, it’s all about skill,” he said.

“With the Chinese New Year drawing near, I expect to work around the clock with the fire burning 24 hours non-stop,” he said.

On ways to enjoy the delicacy, Aun Kean said that aside from eating it with salted shredded coconut, ground peanut would go well with it too.

“Also, one can cut sweet potato and yam into finger size, steam them until cooked but not too long, and wrap with thnee kuih cut into the same size.

“Then wrap with popiah (spring roll) skin before frying until golden brown,” he said.

Cheang said she learned to make thnee kuih only after she got married.

“I enjoy the process and it is highly satisfying when the final products look beautiful in dark brown colour,” she said.

She also said it warmed her heart knowing that Hui Mian was interested in continuing the family business and tradition.

“I started helping my parents when I was nine. I know how to prepare the mixture and the tins.

“Next, I have to learn how to build the fire,” Hui Mian said.

Those interested in buying the thnee kuih can contact Aun Kean at 016-4887662.

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