Mention rice dumplings to most Singaporeans and they will instinctively come up with the name Kim Choo Kueh Chang. Since 1945 this Joo Chiat favourite has been producing some of the island’s most loved sticky rice dumplings. The shop (which is one of our stops on the Singabites Katong tours) is now more akin to a museum of Peranakan culture than a food stall but they still do a roaring trade in their shop made kuehs.

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Edmond Wong is the 3rd Generation owner at their main outlet on East Coast road in the heart of Katong.  The story began in 1945 when Edmonds grandmother used to make the now famous dumplings and sell them around the local area to make ends meet. During the annual dragon boat festival, the dumplings became so popular that she would sell out daily. When her son (Edmond’s father) took over the business they opened the shop and were able to cater for more customers whilst still upholding the quality.

The same recipe is used today and the popularity hasn’t waned a bit.  If you happen to bump into Edmond in the store there is really no point asking him for the recipe, not because he is sworn to secrecy but because he hasn’t been told it yet. His parents are the only people to know the full ingredients,  and they wont be passed down until its absolutely necessary. It’s fair to assume that the usual ingredients are involved. Mushrooms, winter melon, garlic, pork belly and shallots for the stuffing, inside a triangular dumpling of fragrant sticky rice. This is a favourite on our Singabites tours of Katong and often people think they have come up with the secret ingredient but very rarely do we ever hear the same answer and we don’t know the answer anyway.

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A big problem facing the team at Kim Choo today however comes as a product of their success with their dumpling recipe. Each dragon boat festival the line outside the shop gets longer and longer and a few other kitchens have started to try and get in on the act. Now there’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition but when the competition is trying to pass off their inferior products as your high end, generation old recipe then problems start. For the past few years some companies calling themselves very similar names to Kim Choo Kueh Chang have been producing rice dumplings. The problem for Edmond and the team is often people believe they are purchasing their Kim Choo dumplings but they aren’t. As such they are disappointed with the quality and every year the staff at the “real” Kim Choo have to explain to scores of upset customers that they have bought someone elses dumplings. Basically if you want to buy the real deal you can only get them at either of the Kim Choo outlets.

Another favourite on the Singabites tours when we stop off at Kim Choo are the Kueh Lapis or layer cakes. These were actually introduced by the Europeans who used to eat layered sponge cake. Over time the Peranakans have adopted the idea and given their own layer cakes a special meaning. Its traditional (although not always the case) to have nine layers and each layer is to be torn off and eaten separately. The nine layers are a reference to nine being a symbol of longevity and by peeling and enjoying each layer you are taking your life at a steady pace and enjoying each stage. Putting the cake right into your mouth and chewing shortens your life span. You have been warned.

Katong has been the predominant Peranakan enclave in Singapore for generations now and another of Kim Choo’s services is to try and keep the culture going. Workshops, cooking classes and awareness campaigns all go a long way in educating the local school children, residents as well as visitors as to the importance of the culture.  A culture which is very much alive today. The literal translation of Peranakan means “a locally born decendent of a foreigner.” As a result, there are Chinese Peranakans, Indian Peranakans, Malay Peranakans and even Eurasian Peranakans. Basically if you are born here and you embrace the local cultures, festivals, languages and food then you can consider yourself a Peranakan.  Edmond’s brother Raymond also works at the shop, he is an award winning Peranakan fashion designer and runs regular workshops in traditional costume wear amongst other subjects.

To learn more about the Peranakan culture and to delve deeper into their food log onto www.singabites.com and book a Katong food tour.