In these unprecedented times, the chances of celebrating the Chinese “Niu” Year at home is more likely, but that should not hinder us from grabbing hold of our favourite Chinese New Year cookies, especially the much-loved, cannot-be-missed Pineapple Tart. Today, we will explore the various types, from the Malaysian Pineapple Tarts we know all too well, to the Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes that have an equally deep history.
Courtesy of nyonyacooking.com
Origins of the Chinese New Year Pineapple Cookies
It is common to hear people talking about the Malaysian versus the Taiwanese version of Pineapple Tarts, but do you know how to tell them apart? Here, we unfold the differences of these pineapple pastries from these two distinct cultures. Firstly, it is a misnomer that both the Malaysian and Taiwanese versions are colloquially called Pineapple Tarts. In reality, the Malaysian version is more accurately a Pineapple Tart while the latter is more accurately a Pineapple Cake. The distinction stems from their Chinese names: the Malaysian Pineapple Tart (Huáng Lí Bǐng; 黄梨饼, which more accurately uses a tart base, while the Taiwanese variety is more of a Pineapple (Short-)Cake (Fèng Lí Sū; 凤梨酥).
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The History Of The Malaysian Pineapple Tart
The Pineapple Tart that comes in the form of an open-faced flower shape pastry, topped with a dollop of pineapple jam purée is generally recognised across the region as the ‘original’ Pineapple Tart. It is traditionally a Nyonya delicacy.
The tart finds its origins far back in the 1500s when the Portuguese Empire conquered the Malay Peninsula, notably Malacca during their 130-year colonisation period. Incorporating salt into dough, by rubbing butter into flour, was a unique Portuguese way of making pastries, which was adopted by the Peranakan Nyonyas in their dough-making process. Eventually, they incorporated this method into their homemade pineapple jam which was made due to an abundance of domestic pineapple production under the hot tropical climate in the Straits of Malacca, and thus the original Pineapple Tarts were first invented. As a result of this technology transfer, our tarts have become buttery and crumbly in texture, with undertones of savouriness due to the addition of salted butter into dough.
Today, Pineapple Tarts are almost exclusively found during the Chinese New Year as people tend to consume it for its symbolism of auspiciousness and prosperity in the new year ahead. This is also because the Hokkien word for pineapple is ‘Ong Lai’ (huáng lí, 黄梨) which is a homophone for (wàng lái, 旺来), roughly translated to “the arrival of wealth and luck”. Nevertheless, due to cultural integration, our Malay and Indian cousins have also adopted this bite-size cookie into their repertoire of festive cookies.
The History Of The Taiwanese Pineapple Cake
The Taiwanese Pineapple Cake had been invented as a consequence of a harvest surplus in pineapples when Taiwan shifted their production towards domestic consumption during their post-Japanese colonisation period, which also made Taiwan the third largest pineapple exporter in the world. In Taiwanese culture, there is a marriage custom in giving out pineapple-filled cakes to guests as the word “ong lai” (pineapple) also meant the “arrival of luck” in Taiwanese Hokkien, which was a metaphor with a connotation of blessing to the newlyweds to have many children and offspring.
Traditionally, the Pineapple Cake was made with a filling of pineapple and winter melon. The practice of steeping winter melon purée into early Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes arose from the abundant production of winter melons for crop rotation of paddy fields when it was out of season to grow rice. It was quite a natural transition to incorporate cooked winter melon mush into pineapple jam, as it was a common sweet filling that is used in making Chinese sweet pastries, notably the Wife Cake (lǎo pó bǐng, 老婆饼), Piglet Biscuits (zhū zǎi bǐng, 猪仔饼) and Mooncakes (yuè bǐng,月餅).
The Taiwanese Pineapple Cake was never intended to be a pure “pineapple” cake as it was created using both pineapple and winter melon, although today, it is less common to find Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes with winter melon stuffing as there was an increased popularity for pure pineapple filling cakes due to a change of taste preferences over time.
The Shapes & Forms of Pineapple Pastries
Traditional Pineapple Tarts are small, bite-sized pastries that have a rich, buttery and melt-in-the-mouth texture enveloping a homemade sugar-reduced pineapple jam. Traditionally, it is an open-faced pastry in the shape of a flower with a dollop of pineapple puree on top, finished with a tiny criss-cross lattice enveloping the pineapple sphere – That becomes the emblematic feature of the Original Pineapple Tart, made truly in the epitome of meticulous craftsmanship by the Peranakan Nyonyas.
Of course, we are blessed with a diversity of newer Pineapple Tart variants. This includes several enclosed versions where pineapple jam balls are wrapped in by the pastry itself, such as: –
- Nyonya Pineapple Tart: Flower shaped, pineapple jam filling, with a lattice.
- Flower: Flower shaped, pineapple jam filling, without a lattice.
- Round: Golf ball shaped, pineapple jam filling inside, criss-cross or leaf patterned.
- Rolls: Cylindrical rolls with two opened ends, pineapple jam filling, herringbone patterned.
- Fingers: Oblong shape like a tiramisu’s lady finger, pineapple jam filling inside.
- Taiwanese Pineapple Cake: Rectangular, pineapple-winter melon jam filling, milky, powdery shortcrust pastry.
Courtesy of nyonyacooking.com
Filling, Taste & Texture: Malaysian Pineapple Tarts
The Pineapple Tart has a filling made of caramelised grated fresh pineapples that has been simmered-reduced together with sugar (traditionally, palm sugar) and some spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves. This gives the Southeast Asian pineapple snack bite a slight accent of exotic flavours amidst a glittering bed of golden-brown sugared pineapple paste. The pineapple ‘jam’ is not a jelly in strict terms, rather more of a slick and compact version of a fruit conserve or compote made with shredded pineapples, which results in a fibrous and meaty texture.
On the other hand, Pineapple Tarts are mostly made from a composition of butter, salt and flour, giving them a rather salty, savoury profile to the crumbly, buttery shortcrust pastry. In contrast, the original Nyonya version uses margarine instead of butter in the moulding of the tart pastry as it was a cheaper alternative and has a longer shelf life. Consequently, vegetable fat produces a crispy and crunchy tart texture as opposed to a silky, crumbly pastry shell owing to the texture of the butter with flour. It is somewhat akin to the taste of shortbread and crisp cookies combined.
Filling, Taste & Texture: Taiwanese Pineapple Cake
The main telling difference between the two pineapple pastries is that originally, the Taiwanese Pineapple Cake was not purely pineapple. Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes are made with a filling mixed from pineapple and a considerable amount of cooked winter melon purée. This resulted in the Pineapple Cake becoming sweeter and had a softer, bouncier and less fibrous mouthfeel compared to its Southeast Asian counterpart. Nevertheless, today there exists two camps of Pineapple Cake purists, one for the sweeter and smoother pineapple-winter melon version, another for those favouring a fruitier sensation of a pure pineapple-filled feng li su. Another difference in the pineapple filling is that it is cooked together with maltose and does not contain any spices in the filling.
As for the texture of the Taiwanese Pineapple Cake, it is powdery, coarse-crumbly with milky vanilla undertones. Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes are also made with butter (traditionally lard), did not have the same buttery melt-in-the-mouth texture just as the Malaysian Pineapple Tart, as there is an addition of milk powder and parmesan cheese powder to the dough mixture making the pastry skew towards a texture more similar to a chewier-than-crisp shortbread, or an American biscuit or scones, and with mild hints of sweet-pungency stemming from the milk and parmesan powders.
Now that you’ve learnt about their differences, which pineapple pastry would you identify more that suits your tastes? I for one, am a loyal Pineapple Tart supporter, appreciating a tang in my spiced pure pineapple puree with a buttery pastry rocking between savoury and sweet – just so much going on in a tiny little bite!
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