Snapshots from Asia: Muah Chee

bubble tea pearls that are neither too soft nor too hard, but just so. Then there's bad, overcooked-squid-tentacle chewy. The Taiwanese call good chewy "QQ" and delight in it—and are joined in their love of chewy goodness by what seems to be the entire Asian continent. The Japanese are stuck on mochi; Koreans revere dduk; and the Malays, Indonesians, and Pinoys have an enduring love affair with rainbow-hued, multilayered, glutinous flour-based kuihs (cakes).

I used to think a textural preference for QQ was an Asian thing (like needing to consume rice at every meal and the prodigious ability to tolerate insane amounts of spice). Then I got hit on the head by an ooey, gooey chocolate chip cookie and saw the light. Turns out the distinction is not in textural preference but in how the treat got its chewiness. Where glutinous flours (rice, green bean, tapioca, etc.) are the source of the desired QQ-ness in Asian treats, sugar and its caramelization tends to be the source of choice in Western ones.

20070823muahchee02.jpgMost of us are familiar with Japanese mochi and the superlative mochi ice cream. As with all things from the Land of the Rising Sun, they tend to be exquisite and exorbitant. In fact, dainty Japanese wagashi, (confectionaries), were greatly influenced by the grain-processing skills introduced from China along with Buddhism during the Nara Era (710–784). It was only with this introduction of Chinese sweets called kara-kudamono in the eighth century that the Japanese started making mochi. Before that, they were satisfying their sweet tooth with peaches, nashi pears, and sun-dried water chestnuts and persimmons (way to introduce a bad habit!).

Chinese mochi, or muah chee, has remained fairly simple. This robust, inexpensive version with scads of personality is a staple at pasar malams (night markets). It used to be that glutinous rice would be steamed and pounded to a sticky mess to produce the resulting chewy treat. These days, one simply mixes glutinous rice flour with water and shallot oil (oil that has been used to deep-fry thinly sliced shallots and is hence deeply redolent of) and nukes it in the microwave. Then, snip the faintly sweet and very chewy blob into smaller, more manageable blobs, and toss in a mixture of ground, freshly roasted nuts and sugar, before digging in.

Photographs by Shimin Wong