An unchanging family recipe is what makes Rumah Bebe’s Nonya open-faced pineapple tarts so well-loved.
The fruity, toasty aromas of grated pineapples cooking on the stove greet us as we enter Rumah Bebe. Located in the Peranakan enclave in Katong’s East Coast Road, this shophouse boutique-bakery-shop is owned by Bebe Seet, a Nonya who makes beaded slippers by hand. Apart from beaded shoes and handbags, her shop offers embroidered kebayas and beading classes. But that’s not all. Peranakan cuisine is another highlight. Mouth-watering kuehs and dishes such as ayam buah keluak and buah bakwan kepiting are just some of Rumah Bebe’s specialities.
Come Chinese New Year, pineapple tarts are one of the most sought-after among Rumah Bebe’s snacks. Bebe doesn’t begin baking too early, taking into account the two-week shelf-life of her tarts. Now in the thick of her marathon baking season, making about 1000 tarts a day, she and her small team are racing to meet orders for her small and large tarts ($28 for bottle of 20; $28 per box of 10).
“Back in the 1990s,” says Bebe, “One of my customers said to me, ‘I like to taste big chunks of pineapple when I eat pineapple tarts!’. That’s when I decided to get my supplier to custom-make a larger mould to make larger tarts.” The larger moulds are 7.5cm-wide in diameter, compared to the 5cm ones for the smaller ones. They’ve also got heaping the right amount of pineapple jam on top down to a simple science—it is an ice cream scoop’s worth for the large tarts, and a melon-baller amount for the smaller tarts.
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In the end, big or small, it is taste and texture that’s most important. This Bebe gets just right, by sticking close to her mother Mrs Seet Ah Im’s recipe. She says, “We have always been using Golden Churn butter. In the 1960s till years ago, it was very popular. Old Nonyas know that if you use it, it is very good quality. Even though the price increased, we still use that. It gives the texture that we want in the tart—it is crumbly and has a good bite, yet is not too crispy and is still moist.”
Bebe adds that another key factor is making their own jam. This is how they ensure that the pineapple tart is not too sweet. “We need more than a day to grate the pineapples and to cook them straight away. The stirring of the jam is most crucial. Continuous stirring ensures that it is not burnt, is evenly cooked and has a nice golden colour. And lastly, we like to keep it traditional and do a very fine latticework on top when the tarts are done.”
Making the latticework is such a specialised skill that they were at a loss last year when Thi Xuan Nguyen, their team member with deft hands, sprained her wrist just before their tart-making season. This year, Thi Xuan is back in full force, swiftly slicing the latticework dough into slivers that are less than 0.1cm fine.
Laborious as it is, making tarts now is still much easier than it was in the past. Bebe recallls that she was in charge of moulding the tart base with just her fingers and a pincher while her sisters focused on the jam and the latticework.
“I was always good with my hands and I was the youngest. Maybe that’s why I was assigned to do the moulding of the tart base. We only had a cutter that could make the round base. To make the raised ridges of the pineapple tart, we had to roll the dough into a thin strip, coil that strip on the base of the tart, then use a pincher to make the ridges.” Nowadays, that part of the process is much faster, with brass moulds able to make tart crusts with patterned ridges in seconds.
Mrs Seet, who celebrated her 90th birthday just a few days ago, still comes into kitchen to supervise a little. She shares that she first learnt how to make Nonya pineapple tarts in her 20s when she was living in an estate at Towner Road known as government quarters. She had an elderly Nonya neighbour who was really good at cooking and making kuehs. She would go over to her house to learn from her every day. She recalls that they only had charcoal stoves then. She says, “Those days, it was very lambat (slow)! We would put the tarts on a tray one by one, put the tray on top of fire, and fan the flames of the charcoal.” Gradually she came into her own and passed on her skills to her children.
In the present, despite better tools, Bebe believes she will never change making the tarts largely by hand. She says, “Only then can I control the texture and taste. Only with my hands can I feel the consistency of the dough and decide whether I need to adjust it. A machine can’t detect that. Also, moulding of the tarts by hand makes it more refined. Doing it this way may be more laborious and time-consuming but it maintains its good taste and dainty looks.”
While her son and daughter are not quite interested to learn how to make pineapple tarts and other kuehs at the moment, Bebe is happy to impart her skills whenever they’re ready. And she’d be keen to document her recipes at some point, maybe in a recipe book. But for now, her batches of golden pineapple tarts are freshly baked and all ready for Chinese New Year snacking.