Move over chocolate and caramel, hello coconut and pandan. Devotees to Asian sweets know how delicious these sometimes weird and wonderful treats can be. Here is the first instalment of our three-part guide to the best Asian sweet delectables around. We begin with sweets from Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore to welcome in the New Year.
By
Yasmin Newman

15 Jan 2014 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2019 - 9:30 AM

Kuih kapit, Malaysia

What is it?

In Malaysia, the sizeable Chinese–Malay community celebrates Chinese New Year, knownlocally as Hari Raya, with a number of sweet cakes, or kuih. Kuih kapit is a favourite among them.  Literally “folded cake”, the biscuit takes its name from a round wafer that is folded in half, then half again, to produce its signature crisp layers. The auspicious treat, imprinted with Chinese characters, is also known as “love letters”. There are several accounts for the charming title. Some say star-struck lovers used it as a means to communicate: as the biscuits were consumed, evidence of clandestine contact was destroyed. Ingesting the message also symbolised the words being taken to heart. Preparing kuih kapit is hot, hard and fiddly – a veritable labour of love.

How to?

A simple batter of rice flour, cornflour, coconut milk, eggs and sugar, a traditional clamp mould and charcoal fire are required to make kuih kapit, but patience, skill and more than one set of hands are needed, too. While some families still make the addictive treat at home, more often, it is sourced from specialty makers, who take orders for copious amounts up to two months in advance.

Make it.
Coconut love letters (kuih kapit)

“These delicate little coconut wafers remind me of Chinese New Year because they would always be offered as a snack during the practice of ‘open house’, where friends and relatives could visit each other unannounced over the many days of this celebration. Sweet and crispy, these can also be rolled into cigar shapes.” Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co. 2

Fa gao, Taiwan

What is it?

These sweet steamed rice cupcakes, known as fa gao, are the Chinese New Year (Chinese New Year) dessert of choice in Taiwan. As with most Chinese New Year foods, there is word play at play; fa denotes “raised” (leavened), as well as “prosperity”, thus fa gao means both raised cake and prosperity, lucky or fortune cake. Eat this sweet treat for good times ahead. Fa gao, a relative of Chinese nian gao (or Filipino tikoy), can be easily spotted in a lineup – just look for its characteristic cracked top. According to custom, the wider the split, the more prosperous the coming year.

How to?

This Taiwanese favourite is traditionally made with rice flour, yeast and sugar, then cooked in a piping hot steamer, which causes the top to burst and gives the cake its springy appeal. For a touch of festive flair, fa gao are also often brightly dyed or adorned with a colourful dot.

Sukeonggwa, Korea

What is it?

Koreans celebrate Seollal with a beloved drink: sujeonggwa. While the sweet and spicy punch, made with fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, sugar and dried persimmons, is enjoyed year round and during other festive occasions, no Lunar New Year celebration is complete without it. Written evidence of the custom can be traced back to the 8th century; the tradition may be even older. Sikhye, a grainy mix made with rice and malted water, is another chilled drink-cum-dessert savoured during Seollal.

How to?

Essentially iced tea, sujeonggwa is easy to prepare at home. Likewise, ingredients are largely pantry staples (most Asian grocers stock dried persimmons). Once the ginger and cinnamon simmer in water, sugar and persimmon are added, then the fragrant concoction is chilled to infuse the flavours before it is garnished with pine nuts. Despite its cold finish, spiced sujeonggwa is said to warm the body – the perfect winter Seollal reviver. Today, the drink is packaged up in bottles and cans at Korean food stores for the country’s numerous fans, and served as dessert at traditional Korean restaurants.

Make it.
Sweet pancake with persimmon punch (hotteok with sujeonggwa)

Hotteok is a popular Korean street food eaten during the winter months. The yeasted dough is filled with sugar, cinnamon and nuts, flattened and cooked until crisp. Sujeonggwa is a traditional, cold fruit punch scented with ginger, cinnamon and persimmon.

Kuih tat nena, Singapore

What is it?

Widely known as pineapple tarts, these buttery, egg yolk-rich cookies with sticky pineapple jam are a Chinese New Year staple from Taiwan to Malaysia and Indonesia. In Singapore, it is particularly prized and comes in various guises. Round biscuits topped with gleaming balls of yellow jam are the most common, followed by jam-stuffed biscuit rolls. Pineapple tarts adorably shaped like tangerines (a symbolic Lunar New Year fruit) are also top of the list. These moreish treats are fortuitous on several accounts. In Chinese (Cantonese), the word for pineapple, wong lai (meaning golden pear), sounds similar to “prosperity come”. Pineapple jam’s rich yellow colour also resembles sparkling gold – another plus for the New Year.

How to?

Many people still make pineapple tarts at home. It’s a time-consuming task – particularly the jam, made by cooking down fresh fruit with aromatic cinnamon and cloves – but essentially straightforward. Bakeries also stock them; in fact, the tarts are now so popular, many sell them year round.

 

There are more Lunar New Year delicacies to be enjoyed in the next instalment.

Illustration by Dawn Tan/The Jacky Winter Group