Festive Kuih Ee – glutinous rice balls in syrup
Traditionally, Kuih Ee ("Tong Yuen" in Cantonese) is served on special occasions such as during weddings and the Winter Solstice Festival (between 21-23 December, about a month or so before Chinese New Year). Nowadays, Kuih Ee is available daily in Penang from certain hawkers in the Pulau Tikus and Ayer Itam markets in the morning.
In the popular local version, Kuih Ee consists of glutinous rice balls coloured brightly and poached in a sweet ginger flavoured syrup – a truly scrumptious experience!
A hawker located in an alley off Magazine Road (opposite Hotel Jen Penang) sells large-sized Kuih Ee during tea time, each containing a filling of peanuts cooked in sugar syrup.
Whether traditional or localised – with or without a filling – each of the round shape glutinous rice balls is a symbol of wholesomeness, completeness and unity.
To make your own Kuih Ee, try the recipe below. You can purchase ready-kneaded coloured flour from most markets during the Winter Solstice season.
If you do not wish however to roll your own Kuih Ee balls, you can buy ready-made ones, then all you need to do is to blanch them and enjoy with syrup.
Despite all these conveniences, nothing compares to making the balls from scratch, with members of the family gathered together, all helping with the kneading and rolling of the coloured flour into marble-sized balls.
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
2-inch piece of old ginger (optional)
Screwpine leaves (daun pandan)
1. Boil a cup of water.
2. Add sugar, ginger (optional) and daun pandan.
3. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Adjust the level of sweetness of the syrup to your liking by adding water.
4. Simmer under low fire for about 10 minutes or until fragrant.
Glutinous rice balls
3 cups glutinous rice (beras pulut) flour
Some water to firm up the dough.
Food colouring (e.g., red, yellow, green, blue, pink, orange)
1. Add a little water to the glutinous rice flour, knead it until a smooth dough is formed.
2. Divide the dough into several large pieces and colour them accordingly. Knead until the colour is evenly distributed.
3. Pinch dough into small even pieces (depending on the size preference).
4. Roll the dough pieces in the palm of your hand into a smooth ball, each about the size of a longan.
5. Set a pot of water to boil.
6. Spoon the balls into the boiling water. The moment they rise to the top, scoop them into the syrup.
1. Kuih Ee should be eaten fresh and not refrigerated as this may toughen the texture of the balls.
2. Reheating Kuih Ee over a stove or in the microwave definitely is not recommended.
The many variations of Kuih Ee – giving it a local touch and flavour
This simple recipe was handed down to me by my mother. Note that some Penangites break away from tradition and replace the syrup with coconut milk (like Bubur Cha Cha gravy), add a sweet potato puree or green bean paste to colour the dough.
At Seven Terraces' Kebaya Restaurant, a must-try dessert is its Nyonya Tang Yuen. The Kuih Ee is coloured blue with bunga telang (butterfly pea flower) and filled with grated coconut cooked in palm syrup (recognisable in the classic green onde onde). The bite-sized Kuih Ee balls are served in warm coconut cream with slivers of young coconut flesh. A marriage of coconut in three different forms – cream, grated strands and slivers. A brilliant merriment!
If you feel inspired to make Kuih Ee with a difference, go ahead and take the plunge. Be adventurous!
Just as the Winter Solstice festival is about balance and harmony in life and a time for optimism, so the handing down of this recipe is a good example of unity within the family.
This season, I am getting my daughter Jean away from her handphone and into the art of colouring and rolling Kuih Ee balls. This can be a memorable and fun experience which she will remember, and maybe, pass it on to the next generation.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 20 December 2020