Chwee Kueh Recipe (水粿 Water Rice Cakes)
Today’s recipe covers a nostalgic Singaporean hawker dish called Chwee Kueh. They’re steamed cakes made from rice flour and then topped with umami-laden fried chye poh (preserved radish/turnip).
Irony is, you can get this dish at most hawker centres in Singapore for about A$1.50 for half a dozen… but here I am spending hours in the kitchen recipe testing it several times to recreate my favourite version of it. That’s because my personal taste benchmark for these babies would have to be from Jian Bo Shui Kueh at Tiong Bahru Market, where the cakes are extra wobbly soft, and the chye poh is superbly delicious (albeit oily).
It’s funny now food nostalgia and being away from home pushes you into making the dishes that you grew up eating. It led me into buying a stack of these aluminium chui kueh moulds a year ago. They’re petite with a 45ml capacity… but if you don’t have them, they’re easily substituted with any vessel of similar size, even small cupcake containers… be creative!
We’ll start off with the key ingredients to make the rice cakes… namely water and rice flour. And then there’s a bit of wheat starch, oil and salt. That’s it!
Oil allows for easy unmoulding of the cakes, and I believe that wheat starch gives the chwee kueh its slightly translucent, soft and resilient texture… where the cake sinks in nicely as you fork into it. I came to this conclusion because I did try making chui kueh without wheat starch and they turned out floury-dense and cakey. On this note, please know that the Asian wheat starch (澄麵粉) isn’t the same thing as plain flour.
Other recipes have suggested the use of tapioca starch or corn starch instead of wheat starch. I can attest that tapioca starch (for the gluten intolerant) seemed to work quite okay, but found that whenever I used corn starch, the cakes turned out rather pasty-gluggy.
Also, the photo on the right is a packet of rice flour that I’d bought from my local supermarket. It turned out coarser in texture and did not make very nice chui kueh at all, so I’d advise sourcing your rice flour from the Asian grocer.
And here’s a funny story… on my first attempt, I bought the flour above. It ended up being an absolute clumpy-sticky disaster because I did not realise that it’s actually (in parentheses and in smaller font) Fried Glutinous Rice Flour!! I was pretty upset… hope no one else makes this hilarious mistake!
While the most important aspect about the cakes is its texture (I like them soft and wobbly), the chwee kueh topping dictates how delicious the overall dish will be. And it’s primary ingredient is chye poh – preserved turnip. At first glance, the dried goods section of your Asian grocer can look quite daunting as the variety of preserved turnip on offer can be quite big. It doesn’t help that the types of chye poh comes with different levels of sweetness and saltiness.
I eventually settled on a not-too-salty and somewhat sweetish chopped chye poh (ideal for omelettes) to work with. But if you end up buying superbly salty chye poh, all isn’t lost… you just need to soak it in water to remove the excess saltiness.
Garlic, shallots, white pepper, hae bee (dried prawn), sesame seeds
And here are the ingredients for the chye poh topping that I believe will make most homesick Singaporeans swoon with delight. I think the hae bee (dried prawn) gives the topping an extra umami lift, while the sesame seeds (once toasted) helps give the topping an extra flavour dimension. But if you want this recipe to be vegan, omit the dried prawn.
We’ll now go into the steps involved with the making of chwee kueh. The chye poh topping is prepared first and you can do it a few days in advance.
First, chop the chye poh into smaller pieces, either by hand or you can pulse blend it in a food processor. Dry fry the sesame seeds till fragrant, mince the garlic and shallots, and soak the hae bee in water before mincing it as well.
Next, fry everything up with a decent amount of oil… starting with the dried prawn, then the garlic and shallots.
The chopped chye poh is then stirred in and simmered over low heat for 20-30mins before adding the toasted sesame seeds, then season to taste.
Here’s the topping after frying. On the left was my first attempt, where I hadn’t chopped the chye poh and didn’t use hae bee and shallots, it wasn’t as tasty. On the right is the final recipe… tweaked into a version that’s more similar with how I think chye poh should taste like, including the addition of a dash of dark soya sauce to give it its characteristic darker colour.
While the fried topping can be made in advance and then refrigerated, I’d advise making the chwee kueh dough mixture on the day itself. Now this bit was a bit trickier, as I struggled to get the perfect soft and wobbly texture, plus there were so many different recipes and methods describing different proportions of flour, starches, oil and water. At the end of the day, after 4 recipe testing sessions and 10 batches of dough, I’ve learnt a few key things:
First, if you want softer cakes, just use more water. Secondly, don’t go overboard with the starches, as it makes the end product gluggy. Finally, it’s useful to thicken the mixture ever-so-slightly by cooking over low heat, stirring constantly, till the (still runny) liquid starts to flow down the the sides of the pot a bit slower. The thickening step prevents the flour from settling during steaming, which makes the centre of the cake hard. It’s also the one step that you should pay closer attention to… too much heat (or cooking for too long) and the whole mixture can over-thicken very quickly.
What I said above may sound daunting, but to help allay your fears, let me just announce that this chwee kueh recipe is pretty forgiving and utter failure is unlikely. I only recipe tested it so many times because I’m a bit of a texture-nazi when it comes to the cakes. Most of us won’t have a problem with a firmer cake, and some of us even prefer it!
And here’s how the chwee kueh looks like after steaming. Notice how there’s a slight depression in the middle? That’s where the name chwee kueh (Hokkien for ‘water cakes) comes from, where the cake collects water in the middle of the depression. The depression forms because the dough releases water during steaming.
And here’s a handy tip: if your cakes end up without a depression in the middle, it suggests that the dough was a bit too thick.
Left: 1st Batch | Right: 2nd Batch (note how the kueh in the background has no depression)
Allow the kueh to cool in their moulds for 10mins, then unmould with a thin spatula. Top with a generous heap of fried topping, and serve with chilli oil (I use “Lao Gan Ma – Crispy Fragrant Chillie Oil”).
Chwee Kueh Recipe (水粿 Water Rice Cakes)
Makes 18-20 cakes
Preparation Time: 60mins
Cooking Time: 30mins
200g Chye Poh (Preserved Turnip)
4-6 Cloves of Garlic
15-20g Peeled Shallots
8 pcs Hae Bee (Dried Prawn)
5g White Sesame Seeds (toasted)
½ cup Vegetable Oil
¼ tsp Dark Soy Sauce
10-20 Chwee Kueh Moulds (holds approx. 45ml volume)
150g Rice Flour (from the Asian Grocer)
8g Wheat Starch
1 tbsp Vegetable Oil
½ tsp Salt
Chwee Kueh Topping
Can be prepared in advance and kept in fridge for up to 5 days
If the Chye Poh is the extra salty type, soak it for 5 mins before rinsing
Rinse briefly in a sieve, squeeze dry with hands, then chop (or pulse blend) into smaller pieces, set aside:
Blend in food processor till fine, set aside:
Soak in water for a 10 mins, then blend in food processor till fine, set aside:
In a dry pan, toast over low-medium heat till light brown & fragrant, set aside:
White Sesame Seeds
In a non-stick pot, dry fry to remove excess moisture, then set aside:
Chopped Chye Poh
In the same pot, heat ½ cup Vegetable Oil, then add and fry over medium heat till fragrant:
Minced Hae Bee
Add and continue to fry for awhile till fragrant:
Minced Garlic & Shallots
Add & stir till the oil is absorbed, then cook over low heat for 20-30mins, stirring occasionally:
Chopped Chye Poh
Stir in the Toasted Sesame Seeds, then add & adjust according to taste:
¼ tsp Dark Soya Sauce
Dash of White Pepper
A few pinches of Sugar (depending on how sweet the type of Chye Poh was)
Allow to cool, then cover and set aside
Chwee Kueh Dough
Whisk till mixed thoroughly:
300-400 ml Water (more water gives a softer texture)
150g Rice Flour
8g Wheat Starch
1tbsp Vegetable Oil
½ tsp Salt
Add and continue to whisk briskly:
400ml Boiling Water
Transfer mixture to a pot & cook over low heat, stirring constantly, till the mixture just starts to thicken slightly
Then place pot in a cool water bath (to stop the thickening process) & continue stirring until the mixture is lukewarm
Transfer to a measuring jar for easy pouring into moulds
Wash and then steam empty Chwee Kueh Moulds for 5 mins
Give Chwee Kueh Mixture a good stir before filling the moulds
Steam for 15-20 mins over rapidly boiling water
Remove from steamer & allow to cool for about 10 mins before taking out from moulds
Serve Chwee Kueh with a generous heap of Topping and Chillie Oil on the side
For more comforting recipes, feel free to check out my Recipe Index.