Muah chee – truly irresistible moist and elastic humble-looking morsels
Muah chee, a traditional dish made of glutinous rice dough that stretches like elastic bread dough, is moist, soft and pillowy. The bite-size pieces are coated generously with a powdery mix of toasted crushed peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and granulated sugar. Prior to serving, some fried shallots (optional) could be added along with a sprinkling of white, or black sesame seeds.
The chewiness of the glutinous rice dough and the crunchiness of the crushed peanuts make muah chee a tasty and popular snack in Penang as well as throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Japan, although each country would have its own version.
In Penang, this oriental version is often sold at roadside stalls by mobile hawkers on motorcycles or bicycles, at food courts and pasar malam (night markets). To maintain moisture and freshness, muah chee is only made to order. Although the plain version is popular, some creative vendors have extended their offerings to include flavours like pandan, sweet corn, yam and orange.
When making a batch, a muah chee vendor slices off a slab of glutinous rice dough which he chops into smaller, bite-size pieces onto a tray filled with grounded toasted peanuts and sesame seeds. Toothpicks are provided to pierce the golden nuggets and pop them into your mouth.
Muah chee tastes best when consumed immediately after preparation. If left to sit for too long, the natural oils from the peanut and sesame toppings will be released, making it soggy. Also if kept in the refrigerator, the dough texture will harden.
The origins of this humble Chinese offering might have arrived from Southern China, where some of our forefathers came from. Along with them, they brought their daily way of life and recipes, probably muah chee as well.
Making muah chee the traditional way was a laborious process of steaming glutinous rice which is first soaked overnight and cooked, then pounding it in a huge mortar to form the soft elastic dough. As luck would have it, I was privy to this action when I was in Nara, Japan. The impressive mochi-tsuki demonstration – involving two workers – was highly entertaining. The cooked dough was pounded by one with a large hammer-like pestle while the other turned it over by hand! The rhythmical movement is done at lightning speed with loud shouts and feverish cheers by gobsmacked spectators. One slight miscalculation by either side would lead to an unfortunate accident. Fortunately, these craftsmen were skilful. (I could not help but ponder if our Chinese forefathers ever did it this way.) The outcome – the sublime yomogi mochi – had the softest yet most elastic texture.
The mere mention of muah chee to a Penangite would evoke fond childhood memories. In the past, lard was used in almost everything. I can still vividly recall Mum sending me off to the nearby sundry shop to buy lard, an opaque white buttery-like substance which the shop owner would scooped out from a metal tin container. You bought them in catties. My elder sister remembers her childhood days in the 1960s and recalls that lard was added to muah chee along with shallot oil. An "uncle" who peddled his ware moved around in a pushcart tricycle, passing my old home in Ayer Itam. He stored the dough in a pasu (Malay for Chinese earthen jar) with a wooden cover. He would pull out an elastic piece from the pasu, chop it up into small morsels with a straight aluminium cutter (like the one used by today's chee cheong fun vendors). For takeaway, he would packed them on a plastic sheet, toothpicks placed beneath. A slightly bigger piece of newsprint would be placed under the plastic sheet; it is then folded in a neat square parcel, tail end tucked in.
Lard has since then been replaced with vegetable oil making muah chee today a full vegan treat!
Learn how to make muah chee with this easy, fuss-free recipe.
- 200 g glutinous rice flour
- 2 tsp sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 250 ml water
- 1 tbsp cooking oil (preferably shallot oil*)
1 tsp of oil or shallot oil to grease the pan and brush the cooked dough
- 150 g toasted peanuts, crushed
- 40 g toasted sesame seeds
- 50 g granulated sugar (or to taste)
* to make shallot oil, thinly slice one or two shallots. Fry the shallot till golden brown. Remove the fried shallots and set aside.
- Add the toasted peanuts and sugar in a food processor and bland to obtain a rough powdery mixture. Then mix in sesame seeds.
- In a bowl, mix the dough batter ingredients together and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.
- Pour the mixture into a deep dish and steam for about 25 minutes, until cooked through. Test the centre to make sure it is cooked before removing it from the steamer. You can also cook the batter in a non-stick pan over slow fire or even in a rice cooker. Fold the mixture until it is smooth, shiny and elastic. The mixture should turn from being translucent to completely opaque when cooked.
- Brush the dough with a little oil. Leave to cool slightly.
- Spread the peanut mix onto a tray. Slice in a slab of dough and with a greased blade chop it into small bite-size pieces, coating them thoroughly with the peanut mixture.
- Top the pieces with some crispy aromatic fried shallots and more sesame seeds before serving.
Be creative and you could flavour your muah chee with coffee, pandan extract, earl grey and jasmine tea. I even coated a batch with crushed Oreo biscuits. Have fun and enjoy.
Muah chee is available in Penang at some food courts and the following:
Pasar malam at Jalan Van Praagh in Jelutong on Fridays. This vibrant night market is a food galore worth checking out.
A mobile stall outside of Medan Selera Taman Free School.
Jalan Terengganu (Jalan Free School), 10460 George Town, Penang
The vendor is around most evenings.
Photographed and written by Adrian Cheah
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22 August 2022