Ang Ku Kueh 紅龜糕 “Red Tortoise Cake”

Introduction

The 紅龜糕, also known as the “Red Tortoise Cake,” or “Ang Ku Kueh” to the Straits Chinese, is a dessert which was typically for religious or ceremonial purposes. The traditional “Red Tortoise Cake” was made of glutinous rice flour while it had a sweet filling inside, usually taking the form of Crushed Mung Bean and Red Bean paste, as well as Peanut paste.[1] 

Although there are subtle differences regarding 紅龜糕, the use of the cake was the same, showcasing a reproduction of the cake for ceremonial and religious reasons, which include the Jade Emperor’s birthday, Chinese New Year, Weddings, Birthdays and the first-month and first year of a child. One of the reasons for its heavy use for rituals is due to the significance of the “Tortoise,” the Tortoise represents Longevity, Wisdom, and Peace.[2] 

 

Significance of the Tortoise and Longevity

One of the possible reasons why the Tortoise is associated with Longevity is due to its ability to live for many years, and its long life is a direct symbolism of Longevity. Furthermore, the Tortoise is said to possess divine qualities with the ability to predict the future, and there is evidence showing how sages and the Chinese royal families would consult the study and “consult” the Tortoiseshells.

 

 

In “The Sacred Texts of Confucius,” there is an excerpt highlighting the Tortoise,

Anciently, the sages, having determined the phenomena of Heaven and earth in their states of rest and activity, making them the basis of the Yî (and divining by it). The diviner held the tortoise-shell in his arms, with his face towards the south, while the son of Heaven, in his dragon-robe and square-topped cap, stood with his face to the north.” [3] 

The Tortoise-shell is mentioned more than 20 times throughout “The Sacred Texts of Confucius.” [4] 

 

However, the symbolism of the Tortoise does stop at representation, the Tortoise carries on and takes on a more practical and nutritional purpose where it is eaten as a dish, usually as a stew or soup.[5] The reason for this diet stems from the Chinese’s medical belief of “you are what you eat” in a literal sense, where if an animal is known to live a long life, eating that very animal will allow you to possess that quality of what you eat, in this case, the Tortoise’s longevity. Texts reveal that Turtle or Tortoise as part of the diet was especially prevalent in the southern regions of Chu, Wu, and Yue.[6] 

Other ritual texts also show a set of strict guidelines that talk about what should be eaten, and what is prohibited among things that should be eaten as well. “the Yi-like bowels of fish, and the perforated openings of the turtle…” [7] showing a form of nutritional understanding on which parts were edible and other components that were not.

The reason why I delve a lot into the significance of the turtle is to showcase the importance of Ang Ku Kueh in terms of its ritualistic value. Furthermore, it is one of the very few pieces of food to be shaped after an animal, and this truly highlights the symbolic nature of the Ang Ku Kueh, which also helps to explain why it is featured in so many festivals and occasions as mentioned above.

 

Medical Benefits of the “Red Tortoise Cake” 

Apart from its highly symbolic and ritualistic nature, the “Red Tortoise Cake” also possesses an added health benefit of being cooling, “yin” to the body in times of hot environments and hot seasons as a result of the filling of crushed mung beans which were studied to be cooling.[8] The Dragon Boat Festival also features the Mung Bean Cake, the reason for this was the summer season in which the Dragon Boat Festival occurred, where the heat of summer brought upon pests and poisonous animals. One of the ways to combat this heat and poisons faced was to eat “yin” foods or cooling foods to bring down the heaty body, and an example of this was Crushed Mung Beans[9], which was the filling of the “Red Tortoise Cake.” To support what I have just mentioned, the “Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine” talks about how the bean was indeed a form of cooling food, possessing qualities of “yin.”[10]

 

Importation of the “Red Tortoise Cake” to South East Asia

The “Red Tortoise Cake” was imported to South East Asia along with the Chinese settlements after the establishment of the Melaka Sultanate, which took place approximately around the 15th century in 1400.[11] These Straits Chinese then slowly assimilating with the locals, especially through inter-ethnic marriages, meant a new ethnic group, also known as the Babas or the Chinese Peranakans.[12]

Through such marriages, there was a localization of Chinese food for a variety of reasons. Still, in essence, Peranakan food can be classified into three distinct types, Chinese food (Hokkien) with some alteration, Malay-styled dishes, and Innovated foods.[13] A quick and easy summary of Peranakan food would be summarised by scholars like Hall, “cuisine as one that unites Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients, such as wok frying and pork, with Malaysian and Indonesian spices and flavors, such as tamarind, ginger, and lemongrass.” [14] 

In the case of the Ang Ku Kueh, it falls under the category of Chinese food (Hokkien) with some alteration. The reason is fairly self-explanatory, there was only some alteration to the “Red Tortoise Cake”, the changes were some simple ingredients to change the texture and flavors

 of the Ang Ku Kueh, examples include the use of coconut milk and more oil, coconut milk being a vital indicator of an important component for dishes in this region.[15]  Another alteration was the introduction of a new type of filling, coconut fillings,[16] again coconut being an ingredient very endemic to this region.

Modern Changes

In the contemporary times, Ang Ku Kueh has seen an influx of new flavors hitting the seen, the Shop Ji Xiang Confectionery in Singapore offers a whopping seven flavors, namely, salted and normal Mung Bean, peanut, yam, corn, coconut, and durian.[17] Such flavors hold no traditional authenticity and are simply a business strategy to diversify the flavors as it is Ji Xiang’s bread and butter. These businesses making and selling Ang Ku Kueh outside the sphere of ritual and religion has seen this dessert proliferate as a
staple dessert, and become commonplace in Singapore society.

 

Also, through my findings, there are businesses that make use of technology to aid in the production of Ang Ku Kueh, there is a machine that creates the shape as well as fills up the Ang Ku Kueh with the appropriate filling. However, according to Chor Ngee, who sells Ang Ku Kueh, the machine required changing the traditional composition of the dough [18], thus changing the taste of the Ang Ku Kueh as a result of profits.

Conclusion

 In conclusion, although the Ang Ku Kueh has traveled a long way from China, localization forces from the South East Asia region did not uproot the strong beliefs in rituals and religions of the Chinese (Hokkien) people, where they continue to practice and follow the numerous festivals and rituals as mentioned above. As such, the Ang Ku Kueh, like many other ritualistic and religious food was a reproduction[19] instead of an innovated or modified food.

 

  [1] C.Y. Ng, S. Ab. Karim, Historical, and contemporary perspectives of the Nyonya food culture in Malaysia (Selangor: Universiti Putra Malaysia, 2016).

[2] Chee-Beng, Tan, 2012, ‘Cultural Reproduction, Local Invention and Globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese Food’, in C.-B. Tan (ed.) Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond (Singapore: NUS Press), 28.

[3] Misc (Confucian School), The Sacred Books of the East translated by Various Oriental Scholars and Edited by Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879-1910). Vol. XXVIII: The Sacred Books of China. The Texts of Confucianism, translated by James Legge. Part IV. The Li Ki, XI-XLVI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), 2019. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Roel Sterckx, Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 16-17.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roel Sterckx, Food, Sacrifice and Sagehood in Early China, 24.

[8] “Hu Sihui, Yinshan Zhengyao,” in A Soup for the Qan by Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson (Leiden: Brill Publishing Group, 2010), 368.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Unschuld, Paul U. (Paul Ulrich), and Jinsheng, Zheng. Chinese Traditional Healing : the Berlin Collections of Manuscript Volumes from the 16th through the Early 20th Century, (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 93. 

[11] C.B. Tan, Intermarriage and the Chinese Peranakan in Southeast Asia L. Suryadinata (Ed.), Peranakan Chinese in a globalizing Southeast Asia (Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre, 2010), pp. 27-40.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C.B. Tan, The Baba of Melaka, (Selanor, Pelanduk Publications, Petaling Jaya, 1988).

[14] H. Hall, A unique blend: how a surge in the Chinese population influenced Singaporean-Malay cuisine.

[15] Ibid.

[16] C.Y. Ng, S. Ab. Karim, Historical and contemporary perspectives of the Nyonya food culture in Malaysia.

[17] https://epochtimes.today/keeping-traditions-alive-a-familys-sweet-legacy-handcrafting-traditional-ang-ku-kueh-with-love/##targetText=Ang%20ku%20kueh%2C%20also%20known,shares%20similar%20cultures%20and%20dialect.

 

[18] Chor Ngee, Sing, Oral Interview in Community-Driven Oral History Project, Singapore: National Archives, 2017, Accession No. 004210.

[19] Chee-Beng, Tan, 2012, ‘Cultural Reproduction, Local Invention and Globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese Food’, in C.-B. Tan (ed.) Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond, (Singapore: NUS Press), 28.

 

Bibliography

C.Y. Ng, S. Ab. Karim. Historical and contemporary perspectives of the Nyonya food culture in Malaysia. Selangor: Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), 2016.

Djatinugroho, A.D.M, A.H. Destiamand and D. Yana. Jurnal Tingkat Sarjana bidang Senirupa dan Desain, 1 (2014), pp. 1-9 [In Indonesian].

Fu, Jinghua, and Yang, Mingshan. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine – Essential Questions : Translation of Huangdi Neijing Suwen Hackensack, New Jersey: World Scientific, 2019.

Harper, Donald John. Early Chinese Medical Literature : the Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts London ;: Kegan Paul International, 1998.

Hall. Oi Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh: Metro Advertising Co, 2013.

Misc (Confucian School), The Sacred Books of the East translated by Various Oriental Scholars and Edited by Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879-1910). Vol. XXVIII: The Sacred Books of China. The Texts of Confucianism, translated by James Legge. Part IV. The Li Ki, XI-XLVI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885), 2019.

Sterckx, Roel. Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Tan, Chee-Beng. 2012, ‘Cultural Reproduction, Local Invention and Globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese Food’, in C.-B. Tan (ed.) Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond, Singapore: NUS Press, 23-46.

Tan, C.B. Intermarriage and the Chinese Peranakan in Southeast Asia Suryadinata (Ed.), Peranakan Chinese in a globalizing Southeast Asia. Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre, 2010.

Tan, C.B, D.Y.H. Wu, C.B. Tan (Eds.), Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2001.

Tan, C.B. The Baba of Melaka. Selangor: Pelanduk Publications, 1988.

Sing, Chor Ngee. Oral Interview in Community-Driven Oral History Project.  Singapore: National Archives, 2017, Accession No. 004210.

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