LOVE AS THE SAYING GOES, is like a box of chocolates. Wrapped delicately by the hands of finesse, crafted perfectly for one to devour. Each carefully crafted piece melts in the mouth and is devoured as the romance unfolds. But in the history books of our dear Chinese Malaysians, the rich flavour of chocolate substitutes for a more crunchy texture with nutty goodness, wrapped thinly in red ‘prosperity’ paper. In the eyes of our residing Chinese community, only the veterans would remember its vitality. When it comes to tradition, these tidbits played an integral part between the clans in highlighting and celebrating the engagement of their offspring.
One of these engagement tidbits is the Bee Pang, translated into “rice fragrant” in Hokkien. Kuching’s Bee Pang takes a different stance from Peninsular Malaysia’s due to its unique “umami” taste and fragrance – credit is due to the shallots, along with other main ingredients being rice, sugar, peanut, cooking oil, onion, wheat molasses and salt to make up this lightweight sweet and savoury combo, a snack for those who enjoy lighter consumption. Often it is sliced into smaller chunks, but it can also be found in its original size, a single block, before it is cut.
Many locals and tourists alike venture to Siburan to purchase these goods – paying a visit to one of Kuching’s Bee Pang experts, Goh Hak Hiang. The business is now in its 59th year in running, distributing variations of Bee Pang such as black sesame and peanut alongside other snacks for sale. The enterprise, pioneered by Goh Hak Hiang himself, has now been passed on to his son, therefore preserving the link to continue tradition.
The second peanut snack variant is the Kacang Tumbuk or “Kong Th’ng” in Hokkien, typically wrapped in white. Its literal Malay translation, “peanut punch”, swirls the image of how the delicacy is produced – not to be mistaken for a peanut drink, but how the peanut is rolled then hit or “punched”. When consumed, the crumbly texture slowly surrenders itself to the tastebuds.
While these sweet treats are still common, the “Tok Tok” sweet is more challenging to find. The “Tok Tok” sweet, otherwise known as “Toh Tau Th’ng” in Hokkien, draws close resemblance to rolled peanut brittle – the peanuts are ground, caramelised then pounded to a certain texture. The final product is a hardened mixture of sugar, sesame seeds and nuts.
Nearly 50 years ago, many would flock to the streets of Padungan to purchase and pre-order these packaged goods in time for the grand occasion. In Kuching, we are still fortunate to find these today, packaged in the brickand-mortar shops that line up along this heritage street, as well as scattered shops across Kuching and small towns beyond. Flash forward to present day and some of these old-store classics are still running along Padungan, while some have made way for newer forms of retail and dining.
Hap Chen Hian is one of these newer shops that bring these goodies to the table as well as these age-old traditions back to the surface.. Ms Pauline Sim orders these treats from the very suppliers scattered across the outer parts of Kuching such as Siburan, Batu Kitang and Bintawa. While most of the newer suppliers base their operations in medium- to large-scale factories, there are others who work at the comfort of their own home, creating these bite-size goods by hand.
Val-Gab Bee Pang, a Bee Pang business based from a home in Tabuan Jaya, has been operating for nearly 12 years. Making these goods traditionally by hand brings more meaning to the final product – making it fresh and more preferable, according to owners Mr and Mrs Yeo. While their range can only be found in Kuching as well as neighbouring towns Miri and Bintulu, they add that it only prompts the curious beyond Sarawak to venture in search for a bite. In total, Val-Gab produces nearly 300400 Bee Pang packets a day – a lower number compared to 1,000 packets if mass-produced in factories.
While these nutty pieces are now commonly enjoyed as snacks, Ms Sim personally wraps these for engagements when requested. But as far as history goes, Ms Sim says the custom of taking these delicacies to the pre-wedding table is being forgotten and on the verge of becoming long-gone. No longer are the younger flock of Kuching jotting these goods in their wedding checklists. Substituting these packaged peanut goods are modern chocolates – readily-accessible and ready-made.
In a place like Malaysia, with its melting pot of cultures, a multitude of traditions serve to bring our people together. But old traditions stand on thin ice as stories are no longer passed down to generations to follow. As time ripens, the rest remains history.
Shannon is a recent graduate in journalism and media communications, returning to Cat City from the land down under. Now in the industry, she makes a promise to herself to grow, learn and make a difference every day – be it big or small. Kuching has never failed her, nor does she plan to fail Kuching.