KUALA LUMPUR, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- In her kitchen of her restaurant on a weekend day, Karen Tee Kwee Ling began working in the early morning hours, preparing various traditional cakes which must be ready for a horde of customers by breakfast time.
Tee along with her mother Linda Yau Sew Luan and several workers turn out hundreds of traditional cakes or desserts, collectively called "kuih" by Malaysians, but the infusion of unique ingredients from her Baba Nyonya background makes her hand-making cakes stand out from the rest.
The Baba Nyonya are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Peninsula centuries ago and have developed a unique culture, blending Chinese and Malay elements.
"The taste is different, the ingredients are different, this is not the typical cakes. We have a particular flavor that we prefer, lots of screwpine goes into the process," she explained.
The popularity of Tee's cakes and deserts lies in the recipe that was passed down in family. Her grandmother started making kuih for local coffee shops in Tampin, a small town some 120 km from the capital of Kuala Lumpur in the late 1940s.
Tee's mother Yau learned all the secrets in the family kitchen, before opening her own restaurant in Tampin.
It was Tee who brought the family flavor to Kuala Lumpur. Tee has been making various kuih since her childhood, having learned from her grandmother and mother, a fact demonstrated by her ability to prepare 50 cakes in 10 minutes.
Tee focuses on three types of kuih. The first one is the angku or red tortoise cake, a small oval shaped Chinese pastry with soft sticky glutinous rice flour skin, wrapped around a sweet filling in the center. It is molded to resemble a tortoise shell and is presented resting on a square piece of banana leaf, typically marked with a Chinese character which means longevity.
Her other specialty is the koci, a type of dumpling found in Malay cuisine, with a skin made from glutinous rice flour, stuffed with coconut and palm sugar.
"We have the traditional koci, not just the usual black glutinous rice one, but the original blue one with white coconut and sesame filling. Not many people make it as you have to color the skin blue with the blue pea (clitoria ternatea) flowers.
The ingredient is expensive to buy so she grows her own, as well as curry leaves and other ingredients in her hometown in Tampin.
The last is chai kuih, a savory dumpling with plain white skin and a filling of dried prawns.
All three types are steamed for between 10 and 15 minutes in a steamer capable of handling 400 at a time, before being placed on banana leaves or wrapped as in the case of the koci.
Tee's restaurant specializes in Baba Nyonya style cooking, utilizing screwpine but also lemongrass, lime leaves and curry leaves, giving the dishes a sharp and tangy flavor, compared to typical Malaysian fare.
Tee was proud of the special Baba Nyonya flavor she inherited from her family. But for her, it was not only the recipe that was passed down from one generation to the next, but also the way how the cakes should be made.
"My grandmother and mother taught me to prepare my food with honesty, to use the purest ingredients on hand and to have patience in preparation to ensure what I make will satisfy those eating it," she said as she worked on shaping and filling the cakes.