Red tortoise cake (Chinese: 紅龜粿; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Âng-ku-kóe) is a small round or oval shaped Chinese pastry with soft sticky glutinous rice flour skin wrapped around a sweet filling in the centre. It is molded to resemble a tortoise shell and is presented resting on a square piece of banana leaf. As suggested by its name, red tortoise cakes are traditionally red in color and has a sticky chewy texture when eaten. Red tortoise cakes are shaped like tortoise shells because the Chinese traditionally believed that eating tortoises would bring longevity to those who are eating it and bring about good fortune and prosperity. Considered to be auspicious items, these sweet pastries are especially prepared during important festivals such as Chinese New Year as offerings to the Chinese deities.
Red tortoise cakes are also prepared for occasions that are culturally important to the Chinese such as a newborn baby's first month or birthdays of the elderly. Eating red tortoise cakes during these times is meant to represent blessings for the child and longevity for the elderly. In modern times, red tortoise cakes continue to be important food items during Chinese festivals in many countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Taiwan and southern Thailand provinces such as Phuket,Phang-Nga and Trang. However, eating red tortoise cakes in these countries is no longer restricted to special occasions for red tortoise cakes are also commercially available in many pastry shops and bakeries.
There are two main components in red tortoise cakes, the skin and the filling. The skin is made mostly from glutinous rice flour and sweet potato whereas the fillings are made from precooked ingredients such as mung bean or ground peanuts and sugar. After kneading and molding the ingredients together, the red tortoise cakes are steamed on a piece of banana leaf. In countries such as Singapore, these pastries are popular snack items and are especially popular with children because of their sweet and savory taste. In fact, many bakeries in Singapore have created red tortoise cakes in a variety of assorted flavors, including jelly and red bean, to cater to all tastes and preferences.
In Chinese culture, the color red is traditionally used as a symbol of joy and happiness whereas the tortoise symbolizes longevity, power and tenacity. As such, red tortoise cakes are of a high cultural significance and value amongst the Chinese people. They are typically associated with auspicious occasions and are especially prepared during birthdays and religious festivals to symbolize blessings and good fortune.
Chinese New Year is the most important festival in Chinese culture as it represents the start of a new year for everyone where people could reconcile and welcome the new year in hope for peace and prosperity. During this festival, the Chinese people would pray for good fortune and sweets such as rice cakes and red tortoise cakes are offered to the Chinese deities on ritual altars. These ritual offerings are made in the hope that the sweetness from these cakes will leave a sweet taste in the mouths of the deities and they will bless the people with a prosperous year ahead.
The Jade Emperor is one of the most important gods in chinese folklore. He is believed to be the ruler of heaven and his birthday falls on the ninth day of the first lunar month. To celebrate his birthday, the Chinese people will conduct prayers in his name and prepare food within Chinese temples or Chinese households as ritual offerings. In Chinese culture, red tortoise cakes are considered must-haves amongst the food items that are to be offered to the Jade Emperor on altar tables.
Because the number 6 is considered an auspicious number in Chinese culture, red tortoise cakes are placed on the altar table in multiples of six such as 12, 24 or 36 in the hope that he will bless the people with good fortune and prosperity.
Qing Ming Festival is the time for the Chinese to visit the burial grounds of their ancestors to pay their respects. Prayers are conducted to honor the ancestors and food items such as red tortoise cakes are prepared as offerings. However, there is some difference in the red tortoise cakes that are prepared for this occasion. Apart from the usual red tortoise cakes that are prepared in the color red, there are separate red tortoise cakes that are prepared in the colors green or white. The reason for these differences in color between red tortoise cakes is that these colors are of cultural significance to the Chinese people. The color red is representative of the virtuous life led by the ancestors whereas the colors green and white embody the descendants' grief and their hope that their ancestors are coping well in the afterlife.
Qi Xi Festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar. Also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day, the Qi Xi Festival is traditionally a time for young maidens to make wishes for a good husband. When a teenage girl reaches her sixteenth birthday, red tortoise cakes are prepared within the respective households and then handed out to close friends and neighbors. The symbolic act of handing out red tortoise cakes on this day signifies that one's daughter has reached maturity and is of a marriageable age. However, this practice is seldom carried out these days due to a change in cultural thoughts and beliefs amongst modern Chinese.
In Chinese culture, birthdays are of greater significance after one reaches the age of 60. Red tortoise cakes are prepared especially for such occasions when celebrating the birthdays of the elders in the family. The number of red tortoise cakes that are prepared corresponds to the age of the elder who is celebrating his or her birthday by an additional twelve. For example, if an elder is celebrating his 65th birthday, there will be 77 red tortoise cakes prepared to celebrate his or her birthday. The cultural significance of preparing these red tortoise cakes is to count one's blessings for having lived thus far and it is hoped that the additional 12 red tortoise cakes would increase one's lifespan, bringing longevity and good fortune in the process.
According to Chinese custom, when a baby turns one month old, a ceremony is held to celebrate his/her first month of life (the Chinese term translates as "full moon"). Red tortoise cakes are traditionally distributed to friends and relatives during this time to symbolize luck, blessings and long life for the child.
In Hokkien tradition, the design on top of the "ang ku kueh" will signify the sex of the child. A turtle and two marbles is the sign for a boy while a girl is represented by two peaches. Nowadays, to simplify things, a ‘pointed’ "ang ku kueh" signifies a boy while a ‘flat’ one a girl. These tortoise cakes are sometimes made larger than usual in the hope that the child will grow up big and healthy.
Traditionally prepared during significant occasions such as festivals or birthdays, red tortoise cakes have become popular among many people who favor them as a delicious snack. Though many Chinese families these days continue to prepare red tortoise cakes within the household for special occasions, red tortoise cakes are available for sale all year in many bakeries and Chinese pastry shops. Because preparing red tortoise cakes is a time consuming process, some Chinese families in modern cities such as Singapore have replaced making these red tortoise cakes at home with store-bought alternatives. Pastry chefs continue to introduce innovative interpretations of this traditional pastry into the market every year, appealing to consumers who enjoy the novelty of tasting these red tortoise cakes in assorted flavors.
The skin of the red tortoise cake is made from glutinous rice flour dough, mashed sweet potato, water, food coloring, sugar, oil and wheat starch. Traditionally, fillings for red tortoise cakes are made with the following ingredients: mung bean paste or grounded peanuts, sugar and oil. The fillings are then placed within the dough and the tortoise shell design imprinted on the skin's surface using molds before the red tortoise cakes are steamed over a piece of banana leaf. The banana leaves enable the steam to penetrate the red tortoise cake that is resting on top and exudes a sweet fragrance when steamed. A good red tortoise cake is one where the skin does not stick to the teeth and exudes a sweet fragrance coupled with a soft chewy texture.
Red tortoise cakes are traditionally made by:Mixing and kneading the ingredients for the skin to form a dough
Cooking the ingredients used for the filling such as mung bean and peanut
Mashing the cooked ingredients together with sugar and oil to form a sweet paste
Flattening the dough into smaller rounded shapes
Placing a portion of the sweetened paste on the dough as filling before rolling the dough into a ball
Pressing the ball into a mold to create the iconic "tortoise shell" design
Steaming it over boiling water for 10 minutes on a piece of banana leaf
Brushing the cooked red tortoise cakes with oil to give the cakes a glossy shine on the surface
Red tortoise cake molds are an important tool when making red tortoise cakes. Apart from molding the red tortoise cakes into perfectly round or oval shapes, these molds are also used to imprint patterns onto the surfaces of the red tortoise cakes. Usually carved out of wood or molded from plastics, there are many different types of red tortoise cake molds available on the market. There are also red tortoise molds that create floral patterns instead of the tortoise shell pattern seen on traditional red tortoise cakes. These molds are used to enhance the aesthetic value of red tortoise cakes and there is no cultural significance attached to the differing designs on these molds.
Many bakeries and pastry shops have added new twists to the traditional red tortoise cake and found ways to introduce innovative and creative variants of this pastry. In Singapore, apart from the usual fillings of peanut or mung bean paste, there are now red tortoise cakes filled with exotic flavors such as durian and coconut amongst many others. Catered to suit all tastes and preferences, these new products on the market bear testament to the popularity of red tortoise cakes among consumers.
Among the Peranakans it is known as Kueh Ku or Ang Ku Kueh. The black variant is known as Kueh Ku Hitam.
Though it looks exactly like the traditional red tortoise cake physically, jelly red tortoise cake is significantly different from its traditional counterpart. Instead of a skin that is made from glutinous rice flour, jelly red tortoise cakes have skins that are made of sweetened gelatin. The gelatin mixture along with fillings such as cream or custard are poured into plastic moulds and then refrigerated to enable the gelatin mixture to set and harden. These jelly red tortoise cakes are served chilled and presented on green plastic strips instead of traditional banana leaves. They are especially popular among children who view these cakes as a delicious treat and enjoy the jelly red tortoise cakes for its refreshing sweetness.