Artisanal biscuits and sweets Teochew style!
NIBONG TEBAL, Feb 1 — A strong aroma of roasted peanuts greets you when you walk into the small little shophouse nestled in a row of nondescript shophouses.
Inside, about eight people can be seen working hard at spreading roasted sesame seeds on a large table, sorting roasted peanuts and painstakingly wrapping cooked bean filling with dough.
This is Chop Chuan Guan, one of the few remaining traditional biscuit shops that specialise in Teochew biscuits, particularly the ak-am, meng tang, candied peanuts, pounded peanut cookies and of course, tau sa pneah.
Located in the little sleepy town of Nibong Tebal, this shop has been around for almost 150 years and the business has been passed down five generations.
Current owner Khor Wooi Kiat, 39, is the fifth generation to take over the biscuit shop and though they now use machines for some of the processes, all the biscuit recipes and many of the other processes were handed down by his ancestors.
What is different about this little shop is that it is one of only two Teochew traditional biscuit shops that still produces the rare ak-am.
Ak-am is a traditional Teochew sweet made of sugar, rice syrup, flour, peanuts and covered generously with sesame seeds.
Its ingredients may sound simple but making a batch of about 400 pieces of ak-am takes almost half a day.
“Ak-am needs a lot of time to cook and after that, we have to let it cool before we manually assemble all the ingredients to make the tube-like sweet,” Khor said.
First, sugar, syrup, flour and some “secret” spices are cooked in a huge pot and stirred continuously for about five hours.
When the sticky concoction reaches the right pliable consistency, almost like thick glue, it is then poured on top of a table covered with roasted sesame seeds and left to cool for about an hour.
Once the sticky concoction is cooled, it is then flattened into a huge rectangle, almost the size of the table.
“After this, it is very fast as we will fill it with the cooked peanut mixture, roll it and cut into long tubes,” he said.
The result is the soft, sesame covered ak-am that gives you a nice, nutty crunch when you bite into it and a burst of flavours combining the sweet soft outer layer, a hint of the spices, the fragrant sesame seeds and of course, the rich, crunchy flavours of the cooked ground peanut filling inside.
Interestingly, the candy’s given name – ak-am – is Teochew for “duck neck” although it does not contain any part of the fowl.
“In the olden days, they tend to name biscuits based on what it looked like and this looked like a cooked duck neck with soft outer skin and hard inside due to the bones,” Khor said.
Ak-am is also one of the traditional sweets Teochew bridegrooms would send as part of the dowry to the bride’s family.
“There are still many Teochew families practising this custom so we have packaged these dowry biscuits and sweets into sets and we frequently get a lot of orders especially during wedding season like in December,” Khor said.
Normally, the groom will send one or two boxes to the bride’s family and each box would contain the traditional-style tau sa pneah, ak-am, pounded peanut cookies (also popularly known as kacang tumbuk) and candied peanuts (also known as kacang potong).
Chop Chuan Guan may be hidden in a narrow lane of the south Seberang Perai, but it has gained quite a reputation for its Teochew sweets and biscuits.
“As we are one of the last two shops that still make traditional Teochew biscuits and sweets like ak-am and meng tang, we still get orders from everywhere, even as far as Cameron Highlands and Kuala Lumpur,” Khor said.
Meng tang is another traditional Teochew sweet that is rare. It is almost similar to the ak-am except it is a square of soft pliable, chewy sweet covered in sesame seeds without the crunchy peanut fillings.
“Although it is almost like the ak-am, our meng tang is cooked separately as we add other ingredients into it to give it a different taste and flavour,” he said.
The shop, which opens daily from 8.30am up to 7pm except for Sundays, can produce about 300 boxes of tau sa pneah and up to 60 packets for each of the other sweets each day and it is all done by family members including Khor’s 85-year-old grandmother, Beh Sioh Ngoh.
“There are about nine of us working to make the biscuits and handling the walk-in customers so our production is quite limited,” he said.
Much as he wants to increase production and put out more ak-am and the rest of the sweets in the market, Khor is more concerned about the taste and quality of these sweet treats.
“These traditional sweets are not like packaged cookies because they are best eaten when fresh and if you keep it for too long, after about a week, it will not taste as good as when you just bought it from us,” he said.
This is the reason why they keep making fresh supplies that are just nice to meet demand from regulars and drop-in tourists.
“We want to maintain the freshness and flavours of our sweets and biscuits so we make sure none are left on the shelves for more than a week,” he said.
True enough, by the end of the day, most of the shelves in the shop will have been emptied by walk-in customers who streamed in at different intervals throughout the day.
Most walk-in customers, many tourists from other states, leave with huge bags of the sweets and biscuits.
It may be a family business that has been passed down for generations but Khor believes that soon, traditional biscuits and sweets made the good old-fashioned way will die out and those that require a lot of manual work will soon be forgotten and not produced anymore.
“We won’t know what will happen 10 or 20 years down the road as the next generation may not want to takeover or learn the ancient recipes passed down from our ancestors,” he said.
This is the very reason why very few shops produce the ak-am and meng tang now.
So, if you have not tried either or even the traditional style tau sa pneah before, it’s time to drop by Chop Chuan Guan to acquaint yourself with some sticky sweetness.
Chop Chuan Guan
80 &81 Jalan Pengkalan Rawa
14300 Nibong Tebal
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 31, 2014.