The cake I have in mind is steamed, not baked; made with tapioca and rice flour; and is a sweet treat that is part of the rich food tapestry of Peranakan culture in Singapore and Malaysia (see also the thorough Wikipedia entry). This is my heritage and a culture I am proudly rooted in – although relatives would deride my low level of cultural authenticity!
So it is never quite enough to say I’m Singaporean, or a Chinese Singaporean, and certainly not just ‘‘Chinese’. I am Peranakan, or as a woman, a nonya. And this 9 layered cake is not just a part of my heritage, but my childhood, and also now a precious memory and taste of home while I live in a country that can hardly appreciate the nuances of the Chinese diaspora, let alone have any idea of this uniquely Southeast Asian sub-culture.
The 9 layered cake is really gao teng kueh in the Chinese dialect called ‘Hokkien’ or jiu cheng gao (九层糕) in Mandarin. I grew up calling it the ‘rainbow kueh’ – the picture will tell you why.
My earliest memory of the rainbow kueh is of my father bringing it home on Saturday morning after his weekly shopping at the wet market, and picking up breakfast from the adjoining hawker centre. Saturday breakfast was a real treat as it took a break from the routine weekday sandwiches and cereal.
The Saturday breakfast options formed a delectable range from springy noodles with thin slices of barbequed pork (kolo mee), peanut pancake (ban jian kueh), rice noodle roll (chee cheong fun), soy bean curd (tau huay) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), or mung bean soup (tau suan) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), and of course, my favourite sweet treat, rainbow kueh. Apart from rainbow kueh, which was a term I coined putting the obvious word that came to mind and the type of food it was (kueh – Hokkien for ‘cake’ or ‘steamed cake’ to be precise), all the other food items I’ve listed here I’ve known them by their Hokkien names (the terms in brackets).
The rainbow kueh comes to mind today in celebration of life – the layers of varying density, the mixed flavours of coconut, pandan and tapioca, and the bright red symbolising happiness – usually the first (and thinnest) layer I peel off to enjoy what I imagine to be sweetest one of them all!.
The rainbow kueh comes to mind as I think of home and what life means to me after being through this year, the year of 9 layers, the layers of:
Delighting in the now
Chucking out false hopes
Saying yes to opportunities
Loving unwindy sunny days
Pondering over past regrets
Keeping head barely above water
Finding no escape route for shame
Heaving sobs in silent darkness
Riding unfastened in roller coasters
And the sweetest one of them all – delighting in the now – means I am finding the present to be the only thing I have to make or break. At this moment, I am delighting in recollecting my memories, and making sense of who I was and who I am. I used to chant ‘Carpe Diem’ in my teens, after being inspired by Dead Poets Society, so why not again now, after peeling back the 9 layers of life?
Seize the day!
Yesterday is over
Something good is waiting
Wild weather keeps you humble
Disappointment has future lessons
Surviving comes before thriving
The way out of shame is forgiveness
Take time to grief and groan
Cling on tightly to the Immovable Rock
And so life, just like the 9 layered cake – the rainbow kueh – I peel layer by layer, tasting the different textures and flavours of different colours, some more pleasant than others, but savouring each layer and finally completing my quest to consume the rainbow kueh.