August 12, 2011

The Cult of Iced Gem Biscuits aka Biskut Ais Jem

Source: Khong Guan

Sparked off by the stream of nostalgia brought on by Plusixfive's latest post, and my horrible memory never being able to remember the name of these little biscuits, I set off on a little investigative googling mission to find out more about these old school sweets. Let's take a trip down the halls of history shall we?


The real name is Iced Gems and they were first made in 1850s (the biscuit part) by biscuit manufacturers Huntley and Palmers in Reading, Berkshire. Like many inventions, they were an accidental discovery as these biscuits shrunk and came out smaller than their intended size during a biscuit experimentation (kinda Willy Wonka huh)! The makers started selling them as Gems and subsequently added the icing bit in 1910 and as they say, there was no turning back. After a whole series of mergers/sell-offs, the production of these little guys now come under what is known as Jacob's today. The Huntley and Palmers brand today is a newly established biscuit company who bought the brand over from Danone when they sold it. You can read about the fascinating history chronicling the rise and fall of the biscuit giant here (and visit the museum in Reading!) and the history of Iced Gems on this website.

It is interesting to see how different people from all corners of the world identify with these little biscuits. Many people in Singapore and Malaysia (as did I) probably thought these were indigenous to our part of the world, often referred to as local old school snacks, since many of us grew up eating them. But if you think about it, it is highly unlikely that the fishermen of Malaya ate biscuits back then in the 1700s before the Brits came along and colonised our part of the world. They were probably munching on kuehs :) until the British introduced, along with so many other wonderful things of the western world, their tea, biscuits, cream crackers and of course, these precious gems.



They are locally known in Singapore/Malaysia as Biskut Ais Jem (malay transliteration), some also call them Belly Button biscuits, and probably more often than not, the terribly long name of ''those little biscuits with bits of colourful icing on them''. The local cousin of Iced Gems differ from the British originals in a few aspects - colour, taste and pointy-ness. Those found in Singapore have bright neon coloured icing of green, pink, yellow and white, compared to the muted colours of the Jacob's ones (though I wonder what colour Huntley & Palmers made them originally). The Singaporean ones are also far more pointy than Jacob's from what I see in pictures (see below for comparison). I haven't actually tasted the ones in UK myself, but according to Gourmet Traveller, the Jacob's ones are not as sweet (probably reduced sugar for health reasons here), icing is not as hard and biscuits are more crumbly. I shall do a taste test but I'm quite certain I'll prefer the one I grew up with!

Left to right: Singaporean Khong Guan Iced Gem biscuits compared to Jacob's

Do a quick search online for Iced Gems and you will find that there are many people who have fond childhood memories of eating them and sharing their stories on different forums. Everyone has a different method of eating them. Some eat the biscuits first and save the icing to savour at the end, others would bite off the icing first and throw away most of the biscuits (me!) or I'm sure some of you just chomp the whole thing down, perhaps even several at a time! I still remember how I loved to go to the corner shop stocking giant tins of biscuits where you can pick and choose by weight. But sadly, the local biscuit man in your wet market is probably a vanishing trade in today's chain supermarket world. Khong Guan also makes and sells them in commercial packaging and there's even a Facebook page dedicated to them.

Iced Gems don't just exist in edible form! They have clearly become a part of our social history, triggering off precious childhood memories every time someone comes across these biscuits. Like many icons, they have been turned into art, decorative items, jewellery etc. These are just some I've come across, aren't they cute??

(1) Push pins from Koalabonheur on Dewanda
(2)Fabric replicas from British Cream Tea;
(3) Light switch cover from Candy Queen Design;

And some people have been crazy enough to create a ginormous version of it! Sadly lacking is a proper Iced Gem Biscuits recipe, maybe one day I'll get around to experimenting or if you have one, please do share.



It is just amazing to contemplate that the world (alright, maybe just a few countries) being united by a common love and history of iced gem biscuits. So far I've only managed to track down followings in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines (which isn't even a British colony!) and UK. I'd be interested to find out if these were also common in India and other British colonies. If you know, do leave a comment!

Long live the United Colours of Iced Gems Biscuits!


14 comments:

Su-Lin said...

I miss the Singaporean/Malaysian ones! (at least, the ones in my memory). I too ate the sugar and chucked the biscuit!

Had the Jacob's ones recently - the sugar is fruit flavoured and the biscuits are hard and horrible.

Peachie said...

Gosh!!I really thought these came from somewhere in Asia! These were one of my fave snacks when growing up and I always broke off the icing portion to eat before having the biscuit portion. :)

Angeline said...

I totally miss those mama shops with the biscuits by weight - like old robert's shop! i loved the jam sandwich ones... yum!

Angeline said...

i totally miss the shops selling biscuits by weight in the tins with the windows! i really love the jam sandwich biscuits!

miss ene said...

I'd eat the icing bit and then try and throw back the biscuit into the tin, hoping no one noticed. Wahahahaha. Such memories.

Kavey said...

I adore these, and still get them now and again, once a year or two!!!

giozi said...

Regards from Spain.

Via divas and dream workshop

Cinnamon and Truffle said...

Oh my goodness we used to be given these during snack-time in my kindergarten! On metal trays. What a blast from the past...

Truffle

Jehanne@thecookingdoctor said...

this is my childhood favourite, so miss it! Came across your site from XiaoLu, great to meet fellow Malaysian/sporean who live in London too..nice blog btw!

Lisa H. said...

Oh... this brings back memory of my childhood... and everytime i see a packet... the hand is ever so itchy to reach and grab one.

mycookinghut said...

This is what I used to eat when I was little! Got to know you through Xiaolu's blog! ;)

M. eats said...

Love your post and all the nostalgia it provokes. I used to break off the icing, eat the biscuit first and then savor the icing. My hokkien grandma called them"guay ah liap" or literally "balls of baby chicken /chicks". Ahh memories.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered a Puerto Rican version, called Florecitas. They are slightly bigger than the ones I grew up with in Singapore (but still petite biscuit sized), but the taste is enough to remind me of growing up in Singapore in the 70s

Vanuatu said...

In Vanuatu ( south pacific) we use to be governed by the British and we had these. Sold in the asian grocer shops. don't see them these days. I went to Singapore this year and bought packets for my daughter.

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