My Singaporean friend who now lives in California constantly talks about food back home, and home is Singapore. She loves her foods, and having lived there for more than five years, she discovers there are few precious foods which cannot be found anywhere in California or elsewhere in US.
One of the things she misses and hopes many Americans will discover is this exotic traditional sweet and savoury dessert group called Malay Kuih. Originating from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, Malay kuih recipes were exported from the deep villages and brought to life and popularized now in big cities and hotels and restaurants.
Yet the art of making these kuihs is still elusive to many people, that goes for Asians as well. These gooey and delicious desserts are still not known to people in the US or Europe and it is such a pity such glorious foods are hidden from a population who loves desserts.
Most of us in Southeast Asia are familiar with western cakes, puddings and brownies and we often have a wide selection of desserts of east/west to choose from to satisfy our sweet tooth. If only our desserts are known in the west, more people will learn to make them and impress their family and friends. This also makes for a great and new potluck idea.
It is totally different from the western desserts and yet achieves similar gratification. The creative use of colours and fragrance from banana or pandan leaves make these kuihs distinctive and will stand out in a buffet crowd.
Unlike western desserts which use basic ingredients like butter, eggs, plain flour and castor sugar, the Malay kuihs use basic ingredients like flour made from tapioca, green beans, yam, sago and palm sugar and coconut milk. These are mostly steamed, sometimes wrapped in banana leaf. Steaming is not the only way to do it these days, as these kuihs emerge from the deep villages, new recipes have been created and baked instead of steamed.
Furthermore, western desserts are mostly sweet whilst these kuih recipes include savouries as well. This can be created from using tapioca flour and coconut milk and then topped with minced meat which has been sauted with spices and garnished with fried onions. These savouries are still called kuihs and yet many Asian eat them for breakfast or light lunch or for high teas. Basically there are no rules when it comes to eating traditional Malay kuihs.
These ingredients and method of baking were a result of circumstances where modern amenities were not available to them. So they resourcefully used materials like yam, tapioca or beans and made into flour. Steaming was done on stove using charcoals. Coconut milk was used to achieve rich and gooey results, just like westerners use butter or cheese. It is quite amazing what palm sugar can achieve in terms of taste and colour. And yet the result is equally comforting if not more.
There are more than 100 kuih recipes that are basically made from all these basic ingredients. Through creative use of colours and different combination of flours and use of coconut, these traditional Malay kuihs have certainly left some hearts broken when they leave home.