It wasn’t my intention, actually, to buy something that would be useful in the winter solstice offerings to the ancestors. Rather I was running an errand and noticed that the old shop, whose peanut brittle was briefly but lovingly documented by the Straits Times, was along the way.
And in fact, arriving at Sze Thye makes me respect the ST people even more. For the shop, or at least the bit meant for the customers, is… not photogenic. The aesthetic is best described as ‘putting things wherever there’s room’ – neat piles of ingredients, everywhere, in plastic sacks and boxes. Finished goods lie in stacks of sealed plastic bags, on racks, in cardboard boxes, without labels. Mind, some hipster cafes spend wads recreating this look. So at least Sze Thye’s ugliness, unlike theirs, is authentic and effortless.
Mr. Koh, the boss – who singlehandedly makes everything here and has done so for decades – is in the kitchen working with solid, dark wooden moulds. He moves slowly, but knows exactly what he is doing – knocking the moulds on the table, adjusting the rope to adjust the pressure. When I call for his attention it feels like the necessities of business – making money, selling stuff – have made an unwelcome intrusion into his real work. He potters over, looks at the peanut brittle and the sakima. It’s $8.50.
I ask him what he’s making right now, and he potters right back to it, glad to be done with the customer. Fair enough.
I bought the candies for my mother, and she is the one who suggests taking some along for the ancestors. The next day, after all the praying and with their approval (expressed via tossed coins), I take a piece of the peanut candy and try it. The sugar/maltose caramel that holds everything together responds to my bite with a brief moment of tension, then a splintery snap and a burst of aromas – smoke, sweetness, nuts, cleanly fragrant sesame. As the candy is made by working the three together evenly, every bite has the same set of contrasts, the clean crunch of peanuts and the pop of sesame seeds set against the slight gumminess of caramel.
They come in big bags, these candies, and I’ve still got plenty. In the ambient heat and humidity, the caramel matrix will slowly lose its brittleness, become clingier to the teeth, more bendy. Some might mourn that, but it seems a bonus to me.
Sze Thye Cake Shop
2 Beach Road
Opens daily, except for Chinese New Year