Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pineapple Tarts and their Origins

I have made mention in an earlier post that I buy my pineapple tarts rather than make them (too much effort involved in cooking the jam, then baking the tarts). But in my current baking craze, making pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year seemed Just the Thing to Do. And so it began.

There were a few problems, of course. First, the equipment. I had no idea where my pineapple tart cutter and mould were. So a new cutter was definitely needed. This is not the sort of thing one can pick up easily in the local Cold Storage. Fortunately, I chanced to go to Haig Road Hawker Centre for lunch last Sunday. There, I found Gim Hin Lee, a specialist baking shop. It sold everything the aspiring baker could desire - baking tins of all shapes and sizes, other baking equipment such as cookie cutters, rolling pins, a wide variety of baking ingredients (in small sizes and large sizes for commercial kitchens), and of course, my pineapple tart cutters. Not quite the traditional one-piece copper mould, but the two piece cutter and mould which is good enough for me.

The second challenge was finding the right recipe. My grandaunt used to make the best ever pineapple tarts, a family recipe which she had bequeathed to her daughter. But my dear mother kept on forgetting to get it for me. So I had to turn to the recipe books for some ideas. Then the questions arose: should I find a Peranakan recipe, or a Eurasian recipe? And, who started making pineapple tarts anyway, the Eurasians or the Peranakans?

A difficult question to answer, so it turned out. Quite clearly, the techniques behind pineapple tarts appear to me more European in origin. The cooking of the jam, the use of European pastry suggest that the Eurasians may have come up with the tart first. But then, the pineapple tart is a treat so closely associated with traditional Chinese New Year celebration food. The golden colour of the pineapple jam on top of the pastry circle, or the jam forming the golden heart of a pastry ball - the very appearance is auspicious. And then "pineapple" translates (or so I understand) to "Ong Lai", or "wealth comes" in Hokkien. Doubly prosperous, indeed! Little wonder the Peranakans embaraced the pineapple tart as their very own.

I thought that one way to find out would be through looking at cookbooks. But the two oldest I have (Mrs Handy's and Mrs' Lee's) make no mention of pineapple tarts at all. Hmmm... could it be that pineapple tarts are a relatively new culinary innovation? Seems unlikely - my mother recalls one occasion as a child when she helped her mother and aunt make (Eurasian) pineapple tarts. And of course her aunt must have been making pineapple tarts well before that, so the practice must be at least 60 years old, based on my family history alone.

In the end, I decided to use a combination of recipes from Eurasian cookbook writers Wendy Hutton and Mary Gomes, as I thought these recipes would be closer to my grandaunt's secret recipe. More about my baking experience (and the recipe) in my next post.

But for now, gentle reader, one question for you: do you know how pineapple tarts originated, and how long ago? Whilst stories and anecdotes would be most welcome, I am hoping for historical confirmation/evidence of some kind as well.


  1. I can't pretend to have definative answers to your question but I may be able to add to the puzzle LOL
    I DO know that the very enterprising men from Hainan who came to work for the British settlers in Penang were extremely able cooks and skilled at combining Anglo ingredients and traditions with exisitng Chinese and Malay recipes and traditions. The use of condensed milk comes to mind, so does the love of tinned sardines! These men often left the employ of the British when they could and set up their own food businesses. They would surely have realised the potential of combining the auspicious golden pineapple jam with their skill at pastry making was one they could use.
    I do know that cultures will adopt a recipe/foodstuff/custom if it carries anough traditional authenticity to fit within their own culture. Pineapple tarts must have ticked all the right boxes!
    Oh, I've rambled a bit haven't I ? Sorry katong gal, you got me interested with this one for sure. I'm off to do more research of my own!

  2. Hi Rosie! Thanks for bringing the Hainanese cooks into the picture. Yes, it is a possibility. Would be interesting to know what the real story is...

  3. late reply to an old post. nevertheless, the pineapple tart did indeed originate in malaysia.

    it is highly likely that it originated, specifically, in malacca, which unsurprisingly is the home of the peranakans.

    the peranakans, by definition, are straits settlers who are part chinese and part malay. their cuisine and culture have strong similarities and is highly influenced by malay culture.

    it can be said that the peranakans made the pineapple tart their own.

    logically, the pineapple is a tropical fruit, so it would be unlikely, if not impossible, that it originated from europe or china.

  4. Dear Anonymous,
    Tks for your reply. But I think that Eurasians (who also have a large community in Malacca) would say that the pineapple tart is their invention!

  5. Hello everyone.. need your help desperately. Would like to buy the pineapple tart mould made in copper. Desperately need one. Do you know where there are selling in Melaka. Went to 3 cake specialist shop but cant find..


  6. You can buy it from Ailin Bakery at tanjong Katong Mall

  7. I'm late for this post but as the festive season is around the corner I'm about to make the annual pineapple tarts from my Eurasian granny's recipe and looked up this post. I'm hopeless in the kitchen but its one of the few culinary things I do well.
    Anyway I thought I'd add fodder to fuel here about the tarts' origins. I recall one time my mother and I visited Portugal(she was Portuguese/Dutch Eurasian) and we came across similar little pineapple tarts in the markets! The pastry was light (unlike our consistent pastry) but we were surprised by the the pastry decoration like ours and especially by the jam. It was so similar to ours especially with the added cloves & anis. Upon some investigating we learnt from a stall holder there that its origin to her was India due to Portugal's colonial past. The pineapple and cloves/anis I guess. Well that was the lady's theory. A curious one at that.
    We then wondered if Malacca had a part in the recipe due to its colonial link with Portugal & her sea farers who travelled acros S.E Asia.
    Perhaps the Eurasians and Peranakans each developed their own recipes that have filtered down to what we habe today. Personally I note the difference in the pastry but I love them both :)
    Sorry for rambling on LOL!

  8. Dear Jean,
    Thanks for sharing the story. Its fascinating to think how recipes travelled to and fro, between Europe and Asia.

    I have just finished doing two batches of tarts - one last week and one just this afternoon. I won't say I'm that good at it (my pastry is still not up to par) but am working on it, working on it!

  9. By the way, pineapples came from Asia, so...

  10. Dear Siti,
    Actually, pineapples originated in South America, around the Brazil/Paraguay area. See

    So, it is quite likely they were brought to Asia by the European colonists.



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