Tnee Kueh, or Ti Kueh or Nian Gao (Mandarin) is a sweet cake that is made for Chinese New Year.
It is also known as ‘Kueh Bakul in the Malay language, or Cake in a Basket. Although it has a Malay name, it is not of Malay origin.
The reason for this is that in the olden days, the cakes were steamed in baskets made of bamboo. The baskets were woven with large holes so that batter cooks faster. It was lined with banana leaves.
From my past experience, we do give New year goodies like – kueh kapit, kueh bangkit, cookies and kueh bakul among others, to our Malay and Indian neighbours. The reason the Malays accept them was that it made separately (utensils wise) from our normal cooking (Halal issue).
Our neighbours would return our containers with some sugar. That was, and I believe, is still the practice as we do not give back empty containers. This is the Asian Culture. Similarly, we do the same when we receive Kuehs like ketupat and biscuits from the Malays during Hari Raya and Muruku and other Indian sweets from the Indians during their New Year.
The Malays like Tnee Kueh and called it Kueh Bakul. I Suppose it reminds them of Kueh Dodol, a sticky sweet kueh made with sugar, glutinous rice flour and sometimes with Durian. Tnee Kueh is sticky and gooey.
Tnee Kueh is an offering to the Kitchen God during Chinese New Year. The Kitchen God makes annual report about the family to the Heavenly God ‘Thnee Kong’ or Jade Emperor God – the one and only God that oversees other Gods. The aim is to make his mouth stick with the goey paste so that he cannot bad mouth the family in front of the Jade Emperor.
Making Tnee Kueh was a long, time consuming process. We had to soak the rice overnight and grind it ( like for Kueh Ee).
The pressed glutinous rice paste would be mixed with sugar and some water, if required, and steamed for many hours. While preparing the Tnee Kueh, we were not supposed to utter any word that is negative, or it would take a long time to cook. So children were shooed away when the mixing of the ingredients began.
I remembered once, while watching my mum and my neighbour making the cake, I innocently asked how long would it take to cook the cake to the right colour. I was told to shut up and not to ask such questions as it was ‘pantang’, or taboo.
It happened that the tnee kueh took hours and hours to get to the right colour. And I was scolded for asking the stupid question. My mum did not allow me to forget it quickly and nagged me for weeks.
Now I reaslised that it takes up to 12 hours to steam it to the right colour.
I cheated on the process. Well, to put it nicely, I innovated. I changed the process so that I could hasten the cooking. I managed to cut the steaming time to 10 hours and it came out a beautiful golden brown colour.
I also managed to get a beautiful sheen on the surface ( New trick).
By the way, I could not find banana leaves so I used grease proof paper. My late mum used cellophane paper as well as banana leaves.
Here is my recipe. I sort of refer to Nonya flavours for inspiration. I did not follow the techniques, nor use their measurement entirely.
Note: I used 1 spring form baking tin. 1 tin fashioned out of a stew can, and one old hamster bowl that was cleaned and sanitised. I could have used 2 baking tins but my steamer was not big enough to accommodate 2 of those.
Makes 3 cakes – 8 ,9 & 10 cm diameter
Time: 30 minutes to cook, 10 hours to steam, all about 12 hours
400g Glutinous rice flour
Grease proof paper for lining or I banana leave
3 Tins or baking tins
- In a heat proof bowl, mix the four with water, and add the sugar and stir until all is mixed, and that there are no lumps.
- Set aside while you prepare the tins and the steamer.
- Line the tins with 2 layers of the paper ( 2 layers for the side and 2 layers for the bottom)
- Bring a pot of water to the boil. (I used my rice cooker).
- Prepare the steamer.
- Place the bowl with the batter over the pot of boiling and cook stirring all the time until the mixture thickens.
- Remove from the water and carefully spoon the mixture into the tins making sure that they are of the same height. Make sure the mixture does not spill onto or over the tins as it will be messy.
- With a metal spoon dipped in cold water, smoothen out the surface. Then lift the tins and give them a good banging ( 2 or 3 times) on the surface of the table to ensure that there are no air bubbles.
- Steam for about 9 to 10 hours, checking constantly that the steamer doesn’t dry up.
- Remove from steamer when done.
- Note: to get a beautiful sheen and a nicer colour, place the Tnee Kueh in a baking tray and put it in the oven of gas mark2 for about 20-30 minutes or until you get a nice colour.
- Trim the excess lining and you have your Tnee Kueh.
You can then use this as part of your New Year Gift giving among friends and relative ( usually relatives). The golden colour is auspicious.
If you do not put it in the oven, you need to leave it in the tin to harden a bit before turning them out.
Doesn’t this looks familiar?? Shape of Mickey Mouse. lol
Notice the richer and darker colour after slow baking.