"Let's talk about the dough first. To make good mooncake dough, you need four key ingredients: Golden syrup, peanut oil, alkaline water, baking powder (ammonia bicarbonate)," says Tham Wing Cheong, owner of Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionary (Hue Kee).
We're standing with Tham in the kitchen of his bakery's factory somewhere in Aljunied (his shop front is on the second floor of an old-school block in Chinatown), where the affable 51-year-old is introducing us to the process behind the making of one of Singapore's most iconic traditional pastries — nope, not the mooncake, but close. We're talking about this:
Where they came from
If you're old enough, you might remember, as a child, pulling these little piggies out of piggy-sized plastic baskets as a sweet snack during mooncake festival, the concept being a throwback (article in Mandarin) to the time pigs were transported in bamboo baskets in China.
According to Tham, the tradition of making Little Piggies comes from mooncake bakeries finding themselves in excess of mooncake dough. Over time, these pig biscuits became a complementary component to mooncakes.
Tham calls traditional mooncakes Tang You (糖油) mooncakes, i.e. mooncakes made with syrup and oil. These are also called Cantonese mooncakes.
Key ingredient: golden syrup
Mooncake dough is particularly precious here because of the inclusion of golden syrup. Each mooncake bakery produces a unique and distinct mooncake dough because the golden syrup used differs from recipe to recipe.
"Peanut oil is standard. Alkaline water is also standard. The only thing unique is your golden syrup. Most mooncake bakeries have their own unique golden syrup formulation."
Tham's grandfather set up the Tai Chong Kok heritage mooncake brand, which has been around since 1935. In 1991, Tham's father set up an offshoot bakery called Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionary (Hue Kee).
Two years later, Tham took over the bakery operations with his brother, Wing Woh. Every day, he starts work at 6am and only leaves the shop at nine or 10pm.
Growing up with lanterns
As his hands deftly moved on the dough he was kneading, Tham reminisced.
Growing up, he explains, the highlight of Mid-Autumn Festival for him wasn't the mooncakes, but the lanterns.
"Back then we didn't have much entertainment. Singapore had many unlit areas so carrying lanterns was very exciting and adventurous, especially if you're in a group."
Adding to the fun was the prospect of having one's lantern catch fire.
"Lanterns in the past used to be very flammable. If the wind blew or you jerked a little, the candle would topple and burn the entire lantern. They used to be made of a transparent material, like plastic, and people would draw various designs on them — I still keep a couple of them".
That being said, one can't keep buying new lanterns like you might today, he said — so they made their own improvised ones using paper bags.
"We'd cut a few holes, use the base of the bag to affix a candle, and tie the bag handles to a stick. People in the past used to be a lot more thrifty."
The draw of Little Piggies
So did little children enjoy eating these Little Piggies in the past? Yes, according to Tham.
"We didn't have a lot of fast food or tasty food options in the past. So if we had something to eat, it's already very good."
Tham gave the example of his typical breakfast — a slice of bread (with butter and kaya, or the occasional jam) that costs 15 cents. Unlike the array of breakfast options we have today, meals in the past were frugal affairs.
"So in that context, having these Little Piggies was great. They were sweet and had a great mouth-feel. Of course children would want them!"
Chances are, though, he notes, the abundance of varieties and options for mooncakes eclipse Little Piggies to the point where most end up overlooking them.
"We live in different times now. Habits which we used to consider wasteful are now considered normal."
Tham thinks it is particularly important for people to understand historical context so that they can appreciate the nuances of tradition.
"As time moves on, a lot of traditional things will disappear because the contexts for them have changed. You can't force people to eat Little Piggies in the name of preserving tradition. On the contrary, you might cause people to hate the biscuit. People need to know the context behind tradition in order to understand them."
It is an observation he is well-suited to make, as someone who has seen old and new Singapore.
A menagerie of animals
It isn't just little pigs that Tham creates, by the way. He counts among his arsenal of mooncake-baking tools a range of traditional wood moulds that create beautiful animals like fish, lions, and butterflies — mostly animals considered auspicious in Chinese tradition.
Many of these come without filling. Instead, to my surprise, the biscuit is tasty in itself thanks to the golden syrup.
We even spotted this very intriguing one of a sow and her piglets:
Keeping up, innovating for younger generations
That doesn't mean that Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionary (Hue Kee) isn't innovating. Their newer mooncake offerings include some with liquor and chocolate ganache fillings. They also have a low-sugar option to cater to more health-consciuos customers.
And for a younger palate, Tham showed us this Walnut Butter Pastry that contains a lotus filling:
However, their Little Piggies remain unchanged.
Despite his passion in making these mooncake biscuits as the decades pass, Tham says he does not feel any sorrow or regret at the prospect of these biscuits disappearing in the future.
"I don't know if these biscuits will be around in the future, but at least we are recording this for posterity sake. That comforts me."
Watch how Tham makes piggy mooncake biscuits:
Chinatown Tai Chong Kok Confectionary (Hue Kee)
Alexandra Village Branch:
Contact: 6270 8994
Contact: 6223 0456
This interview with Mr Tham was conducted in Mandarin. Quotes were translated to English and edited for clarity. All photos by Joshua Lee and the Mothership video team.