tai kau meen, ban chian kuih, ming jiang kueh – call it what you will and in any dialect you choose, this pancake is one of the most enjoyable among traditional chinese sweets. making it is easy enough, or at least it looks so: pour batter onto large flat frying pan, sprinkle filling over, wait for the bottom to brown then remove from pan, fold the other half over, slice and serve. the most basic and traditional filling is ground peanuts mixed with sugar, to which one can also opt to add red beans or sweet creamed corn, or both.
at granny’s pancake, a popular stall located within the square that is the well-patronised ghim moh food centre in singapore, things are done a little differently. there are four fixed variants - peanuts, red beans, shredded coconuts and peanut butter - and depending on how many orders are being placed by the customers ahead of you, you could be in for quite a wait. but it’s well worth it, as what you’ll get is always pan-fresh and piping hot.
waiting is, in fact, a joy if you ask us as it’s an opportunity to watch the proprietors at work. there are usually just two people running the stall: one focuses on the making while the other takes and packs the constant stream of orders. it’s a well-oiled machine, with every step deftly and swiftly executed, and all within a quaint space – place one more person there and it will be an uncomfortable squeeze.
there’s enough room for just two pans over medium fire at any one time and each pan makes a pancake that can be cut into eight equal pieces. it’s not unusual for customers to snap up an entire cake at one go, hence the wait.
you can see that the proprietors are on the edge as orders piles up. the one manning the pans will lift the cakes up every now and then to check, drumming his fingers to muster patience. but it’s not a process that can be rushed, even if the queue never lets up until the very last drop of batter has been turned into kuih.
as soon as he deems that the browning has reached the required level, he chisels the pancake out – without adding the filling. the 'empty' pancake is lifted to the filling station and only then is it filled in piles of either peanuts that have been crushed into fine morsels and then mixed with sugar; shredded fresh coconuts cooked in a mutant orange sugar; thick, smooth peanut butter; red beans that have been mashed into a paste and prepared in the same round shape and size as the pancake – the plastic sheet protecting it is removed when needed, and the paste is then slapped onto the cake.
bite into the pancakes and you’ll understand where granny's stands out: the edges of the crust are crispy while the cake is pillow-soft and spongey without being dense, and every slice overflows with filling. each of the four filling is enjoyable for its own reasons: the peanuts and red beans are aromatic, pure in flavour and have just the right amount of sugar to give it a lovely sweetness without being cloying. the peanut butter is thick and rich without sticking to your teeth and the coconut, which gets our top vote, is utterly delightful. the coconut’s natural flavour shines through and maintains a lovely crunch that gives textural contrast and balance to the cake.
even after being left for a few hours – and once, overnight in the refrigerator before reheated for breakfast – the pancakes were still as enjoyable, although the peanuts had gone a tad soggy.
granny’s secret, it seems, is in the way the batter is prepared. sugar is added into the batter before and not while it is cooking in the pan, as is usually the case, and the mixture is strained to ensure smoothness. the fillings are only added after the cake leaves the pan so they stay crunchy or moist longer. most crucially, they are all made from scratch, even the peanut butter. if you stay on after business hours, you can actually watch them prepare the fillings for the next day when, no doubt, another long line of eager customers will wait as patiently as possible to get their hands onto these beautiful ‘big face cakes’ (that’s what tai kau meen means in cantonese).
granny’s pancake #01-24 ghim moh market and food centre, 20 ghim moh road, singapore opens mornings only, from around 7am-noon daily