Love letters, those thin, crispy, fragrant wafers that are either folded into a fan-shape or rolled like cigars and are also known, in the Malay language, as Kueh Kapit or Kueh Belanda, are a favourite indulgence during festive seasons. Since they are now so readily available for purchase, hardly anyone I know makes them from scratch any more. But I remember it being a highlight of my childhood, as Chinese New Year drew near and the mothers in our neighbourhood got together, in the spirit of gotong-royong, to make love letters, pineapple tarts and other traditional Chinese New Year goodies. Us children, freed from the watchful eyes of our busy mothers, ran in and out of each others’ houses, playing and generally raising a ruckus, only pausing to snatch a delicious, warm love letter or cookie, fresh off the oven or stove, and cramming it into our greedy little mouths.
At this year’s iteration of OH! Open House’s annual art tour, OH! Emerald Hill (read U’s piece about the exhibition here), eminent Singapore artist Jimmy Ong made Javanese-style love letters for a work of performance art, called Open Love Letters, 2018. But more about the performance later. If you’re feeling nostalgic and are minded to try making your own love letters from scratch (good luck!), Ong has generously shared the recipe that he used for the performance here:
I always try out the artist’s recipes that we feature here in our Plates section and this one was no different except, this time, Ong insisted I join him in making it at the performance itself – and so I did!
The artist confesses that he is no cook and that this recipe is one that he got from his aunt. Typical of recipes from the best home cooks, this one is a little skimpy on detail and specifics, as the writer assumes that we are all as experienced as she is. So, let me help fill in the gaps a little. “Chinese spoon” means the porcelain spoon that the Chinese typically use to drink soup out of – you know the one, you can see an example in the image below. “Cake mulsifier” is “cake emulsifier”, which most people who bake will be familiar with. You need it when you are trying to mix ingredients together that don’t naturally combine, like oil and water. If you go to any good baking supply store, like Phoon Huat, which has outlets all over the island, and just ask, you should be able to obtain it easily.
No need for an electric mixer, you just mix the ingredients together by hand, with a whisk. Ong adds an additional ingredient that he says is used in the Javanese version of love letters (in Indonesia, it is known as kue semprong or sepit, and is believed to be derived from the Dutch egg-roll wafer, kniepertjes). He adds a pinch or two of spekkoek spice mix, more often used in Indonesian kueh lapis. It’s a mix of ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves which you can make yourself but is also available locally at baking supply stores (ask for kueh lapis spice powder).
You will need a charcoal stove and several kuih kapit moulds, that you can buy from selected Phoon Huat outlets (call to check if they have them in stock) and, I am told, from Ailin Bakery House, which is where the OH! crew got the ones in the picture below, that were used for Ong’s performance.
Now to the performance itself! In Open Love Letters, the artist takes a closer look at the history of colonialism through the person of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, “founder of modern Singapore” and one-time Lieutenant-Governor of Java. While Singapore honours the memory of Raffles, the Javanese regard him as an oppressor and remember the period of his rule as one fraught with conflict.
The charcoal stoves on which the love letters are baked look nothing like regular stoves, yet seem strangely familiar. They are, in fact, modelled on the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles that now stands at Empress Place, overlooking the Singapore River.
When the love letters are made, they are neither rolled nor folded but are left open (hence the name, Open Love Letters) and stamped, in Javanese script, with the words of a Javanese proverb. The English translation of the proverb, and the stamps, are shown in the picture below.
So … is Raffles the bad man who is like a fire? Or the good man, whose fragrance remains in the wood (after all, charcoal is made from wood)? When we consume the love letters baked over the flames of Raffles’ body, is it an act of reverence or are we, in fact, swallowing our bitterness and anger?
[Note: Are you an artist with a recipe you’d like to share? Get in touch with us for a chat!]