Prosperity, Come Forth
Pineapple tarts are of no stranger to a Malaysian household especially on Chinese New Year, a celebration of the Lunar New Year starting from the first day of the first lunar month and ending on the 15th. These auspicious cookies had been must-haves for Chinese New Year since long ago. One of the main reason these delicious dainties have gotten the fame was due to its name in Chinese, in the Hokkien dialect, Ong Lai, though literary means Golden Pear due to its nature, it also happens to have the same idiom as ‘Prosperity Come’ as in the meaning of the coming of prosperities, fortunes or luck. Therefore, Chinese whom are famous for their puns, made these every year considering them as auspicious cookies. Who would in the sound-Chinese-mind would not want more (ong lai) prosperity to come? Setting the auspicious reason aside, many had been hooked to these treats just for its sweet, tangy soft yet fibrously chewy pineapple filling as well as the smooth and buttery crusts. Ah, such indulgence will always be in one’s mind when spoken of Chinese New Year treats.
Photo by e-wander
Dated back into history, these shining dainties were not from China itself, in fact undisputedly, many agrees that it is originated from Malaysia Straits Chinese namely known as the Peranakan or Baba Nyonya. They are the very early Chinese immigrants that had settled in the British Straits Settlements of Malaya, partially adopting Malay customs for assimilation effort. Most Peranakan are Hokkien, therefore explaining the term of Ong Lai, and the usage of the ubiquitous pineapple in Malaya during those times. Being still accustom to their Chinese blood in a foreign land, they came up with innovative way to celebrate one of their most important events with a new twist. From then on, Chinese New Year in Malaysia were filled with myriads of pineapple tarts ranging from various styles. These styles were fashioned across times, coming in many forms. In the 80s, it is the ‘country’ style which is like an open faced tart, where the pineapple fillings are heaped upon ‘flower’ shaped base. Then in the 90s, the ‘pineapple look’ caught on where the fillings are wrapped inside the crust which then is shaped to look like mini pineapple. Then with the latest emergence style is the rolled up version where the pineapple fillings are peeking out from the sides.
Right up to a decade before, pineapple tarts have been more of a family ritual where every family makes their own batch from their most guarded recipes, handed down from mother to daughters. As time goes by, the novelty of it had slowly been fading away, where many entrepreneurs seek to leverage on this as opportunity and had came up with selling them just months before Chinese New Year. Think of it as an exclusive and limited edition sort of production. These entrepreneurs range from those selling their ‘homemade’ small batches albeit higher price but with higher quality and touch, in oppose to the entrepreneurs selling large batches as wholesale coming in its own packaging even. Connoisseurs hold by the principle that the best pineapple tarts must be made by hand thus explaining the thriving cottage industry in oppose to the industrial produces. Though these goodies are usually available year round, it never taste the same as it does for Chinese New Year, maybe it’s the novelty, or the excitement, or the saving of one’s tummy for the yearly indulgence or scientifically the pineapples are more abundantly sweet this time around.
Even for me, I was introduced to these lovely morsels during the auspicious Chinese New Year. I remember vividly that my sister and I, really young at that time, was fascinated by the plastic containers industrial version of rolled up pineapple tarts lined up rows after rows in our mini town’s supermarket. So we pestered our mum to get it for us, and once home, we devoured it like there is no tomorrow. It was finished even before you can say “Happy Chinese New Year”. But at that time, being the first time and still a kid, the ones we had were actually inferior, having thick hard skins and too much sugar ratio to pineapple in the fillings. Later on as I grew up and tried various pineapple tarts, I start to discern the good from the bad and the various types there is. I enjoyed both the rolled up and the open face tarts. For the rolled up tarts, I especially love those that are really buttery, where once you pop it melts in your mouth mixing along with the pineapple fillings, enriching it as it goes. As for the open face tarts, I like those for being able to truly savour the pineapple fillings more indulgently. For both, my pineapple fillings have to be fragrant, full of pineapple fruitiness, still slightly moist and just lightly sweetened.
Photo by Rokh
Making the pineapple tarts are no easy feat, thus the usual family ritual where everyone needs to chip in to make it easier. First and foremost, fresh and sweet pineapple needed to be source for, and then slice off the skin and religiously remove every spiky ‘eye’. Then it is cut to slices and then grated by hand, making care not to hurt the fingers, though now the modern alternative is to let a food processor do the work. Then the grated pulp need to be drained and then cooked over low heat with spices such as star anise or cloves, stirring continuously till nearly dry. Sugar is added according to taste at the meantime. Then the paste can be use straight away or refrigerated till needed. Next comes the second part of this tedious process that is making of the pastry. Some love the crumbly version, while others the crunchy ones. No matter which way though, there is no shortcut to the pastry making. Butter is cut into the floor till resembling dry breadcrumbs then mixed with egg and slowly kneads. The combinations of these ingredients as well as the method of making will determine the type it will become. After that, the pastries are shaped accordingly, as per the generations’ versions mentioned, or just to one’s favourite, add in with the cooked pineapple paste and then baked in preheated oven. After that, the whole place will be filled with the wonderful mixed aroma of pineapples, cloves and butter. Ah, this is how one knows the fruit of the hard work would certainly be sweet.
If you are craving for some pineapple tarts now, fret not as I found that one can get really good ones all year round in Bee Bee’s House, Melaka but do remember to pre-order though. Else you have to wait for Chinese New Year to come around in few months time, where then you can order from various home bakers that only sell them once a year. Or last but not least, for the brave hearted, one can try to make them at home. Even if you do not get it now, you must remember to stock up during the next Chinese New Year, as you would want prosperity to come to you right?
Rokh is a food columnist on Malaysia Travel Guide, she’s an epicurean and a cook who loves to eat, also writes in her own Malaysia Food Guide – Thamjiak.com . In this column, she will bring you along while she explore various Malaysia foods, like what is good, what makes them so special and how or where to best well enjoy them. More [+]