Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mr. Bean - Keeping Alive Teochew Pastry Traditions

At 15, Chan Kim Ho was faced with a decision that would change his life forever: take over the family business, his father told him and his kid brother…or I will close it down. While his brother opted to continue his education, eventually becoming an academician at the local university, Mr Chan left school and took over the Poh Guan Cake House.

Freshly-baked Teochew pastries available everyday in the shop.
When he decided to step in, the enterprise was already old, founded almost 30 years earlier, in 1930, with just three products to sell -- peanut candy, red bean cakes, and lotus cakes. These were originally snack specialties of Hokkien province in China; their tastiness made them popular in Singapore, but they were also must-serves at weddings. When he took over the shop in 1958, Mr Chan had to work 16-hour days aided by a single helper. But business grew and he began distributing to provision shops and coffee shops.

His products became a common sight in the coffee shops of the 1960s and 70s. His peanut candies, especially, would fill large glass jars that lined the cashier’s counter; however, Mr Chan also witnessed the steady decline of Chinese pastry making. The introduction of western cakes and pastries hurt the traditional industry deeply. In the face of faltering demand and competition for a shrinking pie, Mr Chan decided to learn the preparation of bean paste fillings under two masters of the craft.

Poh Guan successfully grew after this astute move, and today employs a staff of about a dozen in the production end of the business. Despite this, the boss insists that no other person but himself should make the cake fillings.

Mr. Chan still cooks the fillings
for all his pastries personally.
Mr Chan proudly tells us that while the ingredients might be few and simple – beans, sugar, and lard; to achieve consistency of the mix, and timing in the addition of each ingredient, is a hard-won skill. The final bean paste should be moist, sweet, and meltingly smooth.

What’s heartening to this 68-year-old doyen of Chinese pastry making, however, is the revival among the young of giving out traditional Chinese cakes at weddings. This has an advantage, Mr Chan says with a twinkle in his eye, because Chinese cakes last longer, unlike the western ones that require refrigeration and have a short shelf life.

A rare treat: pepperweed kueh made with
 a hard-to-find herb from China.
While ever the traditionalist, Mr Chan also seeks to make the old, new again. From time to time, he introduces traditional cakes with newly concocted fillings such as durian, green tea, pineapple, and yam. One of the company’s creations is a cake made from a Chinese herb – or weed, as he puts it. His sister who lives in China would harvest, wash, air, and sun dry the herb, and Mr Chan would bring it back to Singapore. 

The cakes thus produced are only sold at Poh Guan, while the same cakes produced by his competitors, he whispers conspiratorially -- have the “weed” replaced with pepper! Apparently, this special herb also has medicinal benefits as a detoxification agent, remover of dark spots on skin, and eliminator of gray hair. 

Poh Guan Cake House
Blk 531 Upper Cross Street #01-57
Singapore 050531
Tel: 6534 0136