Come Tu-Tu-Together for a Heritage Kueh
Outside the Tan’s Tu Tu Coconut Cake stall on a rainy Saturday afternoon, one customer excitedly watches Auntie Bee Hua work her magic. Behind him, another sighs upon being told that the stall was closed for the day. The customer who snagged the last order turned to us and declares: “This is the best tu tu kueh in Singapore, you know. I have been buying from her for more than a decade.”
Pillowy, chewy, and subtly sweet, these steamed rice flour cakes are indeed the best rendition we’ve ever tasted. “The perfect tu tu kueh is firm but not too dry, and soft but not too wet,” she explains. “It should taste delicious when it’s freshly made, of course, but the ultimate test is whether it still tastes good when it’s cooled down a bit.”
The fifty-something passes the test with flying colours on all counts, but that’s hardly surprising. After all, her father, Mr Tan Yong Fa, is credited as the man who created — or at least popularised — the tu tu kueh. Hailing from a small village in Fujian, China, Mr Tan had learnt how to make a traditional rice cake called song gao from his parents. He moved to Singapore in 1932 with some fellow villagers (who, incidentally, all have the surname Tan), and they started selling song gao on trishaws. Inspired by local ingredients like gula melaka, coconut, and pandan, they soon put their own spin on the cake, and the tu tu kueh was born.
As a little girl, Auntie Bee Hua was initially tasked with washing the pandan leaves before being promoted to help fry the peanuts for the cake’s filling. She remembers learning how to count as her mother scribbled numbers and doodled on the flour-covered counter top. When she was in secondary school, her father finally taught her how to make the kuehs and roped her in to help sell them during the weekends, while her elder brother did the night shifts. Rain or shine, they would ride the trishaw all over Singapore, following the crowds from Chinatown to Katong to Great World Amusement Park. And while Auntie Bee Hua’s early attempts at making the cake would always fall apart, she soon got the hang of it.
Despite perfecting the craft, she was never expected to take over the business. Her parents had wanted her to study hard and get a good job. And for 25 years, she was the accounts manager for an international insurance brokerage firm. The family business, in the meantime, was taken over by her elder brother Mr Tan Cheong Chuan and moved into a hawker centre in Clementi by 1973. An enterprising businessman, Mr Tan went on to strengthen the identity of their family business against other Tu Tu kueh by creating the brandname Tan's Tu Tu Coconut Cake, going so far as to getting the brand logo designed. But when he fell sick and passed away in 2004, Auntie Bee Hua stepped up to the plate. Does she miss the cushy “OL” (office lady) life? “I miss the benefits and the annual leave!” she says with a laugh. “These days I don’t have any of that, and I need to do OT all the time!” In fact, her work day now begins at 10am and ends at 11pm or even midnight. But while she admits that running the tu tu kueh stall is labour intensive and extremely tiring, she has no regrets about taking up the mantle. “I feel very proud to continue my father’s work,” she said. “And when I see how much my customers enjoy the cake, it’s all worth it.”
Here are a few more fun facts you may not know about Tan’s Tu Tu Coconut Cake to whet your appetite before you rush down to grab yourself a piece… or 10:
1) The first chrysanthemum-shaped brass moulds were handmade by Mr Tan’s relatives in China. When one of them cracked, the frugal family welded a Singapore five-cent coin to the centre part to keep it together. Auntie Bee Hua has since started getting stainless steel versions custom made locally instead, but the original moulds are still kept as treasured family heirloom.
2) They started out with a wood-fired steamer fitted onto their trishaw cart. However, the wood fire left a layer of soot all over the equipment and had to be cleaned daily. The family eventually switched their fuel of choice to charcoal, and then kerosene, and then gas, before Auntie Bee Hua’s brother built the first ever electricity-powered tu tu kueh steamer in Singapore. This version continues to be used today.
3) Auntie Bee Hua has never altered her father’s tu tu kueh recipe — though she did add her own touch to the humble cake by introducing a dark chocolate chip filling. It’s popular with the kids — and a hit with the adults too! She has also experimented with durian and cheese fillings for special occasions like the Singapore Hawker Fest, but since most customers come to her for the traditional flavours, she’s decided to mostly stick with those.
4) Here’s a pro-tip for reheating your takeaway tu tu kuehs: place the kuehs with its pandan leaf base atop rice that you are cooking. Do this towards the end of the rice-cooking process, so that within a few minutes, you will have kuehs that are hot and soft again, and just-cooked rice fragrant with the sweet scent of pandan. That said, tu tu kuehs are best enjoyed fresh!
5) Business is still kept within the family. Auntie Bee Hua’s sister-in-law used to help run the stall’s second branch in Clementi, but since she’s getting on in age, she just helps to prepare the pandan leaves these days. This means Auntie Bee Hua is now running both outlets herself, manning the Havelock Road one by day and the Clementi one by night. That said, her nephew and other younger relatives are also well-trained in the art of tu tu kueh making, and do help out whenever they can.
6) The secret behind perfect tu tu kuehs: top quality ingredients. Auntie Bee Hua prepares the rice flour in-house, grates fresh coconuts daily, and even sources special jumbo-sized pandan leaves from Malaysia and Thailand to ensure the sweetest flavours. Well, that, and a few decades of experience!
Craving for more deliciousness from Clementi? Check out our full list for the neighbourhood! (Clementi's resident curator Lennard Yeong also shares some of his favourite food haunts in his 'hood.) While you are out exploring, also look out for merchants displaying the Jalanjalan sticker: patronise our partners between 15 March until 25 April and you would stand to win big! Apart from weekly giveaways such as vouchers that can be redeemed at Tan's Tu Tu Coconut Cake, there is also a grand draw where you can win a $188 Grab Voucher, an Apple Watch, or a staycation at Wanderlust hotel! Excited? Ready, get set, and go jalan jalan!