Malaysian kuih are bite size treats where every Malaysian has a story to share about. Endearingly Malaysian, it’s best to familiarise yourself with the most popular kuih. You might just find this little piece of information a great conversation starter at this year’s Hari Raya open house invite!
How does one measure time in terms of pure bliss and complete satisfaction? Would it be the most awaited sports event of the year? That eventual feeling of incomparable joy upon the arrival of a child after 9 months of anticipation? Or perhaps a simple celebratory get together really is the very thing that salves us from our human tribulations and every day banalities.
Enter Hari Raya Aidilfitri or Hari Raya Puasa as it’s widely known here in Malaysia: a much awaited and popular festivity celebrated by Malaysians from all walks of life and categories imaginable. Known to many as a country of many fusions; be it with its peoples, cultures, creeds and foods, Malaysia holds a unique presence in Southeast Asia despite also sharing a few commonalities with its neighbouring nations. One in particular is a well-known and jointly loved food which goes hand in hand with this celebration: the Kuih.
Kuih-muih are both sweet and savoury traditional eats depending on their provenance – could be anywhere from the northern state of Kelantan to the southern state of Selangor – and consumed as a dessert, appetizer or snack and share parallels with cakes, pastries and some baked goods from other countries. More easily referred to as simply kuih, other versions of these can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia like Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia – chalk it up to ancient historical and geographical ties. But what is it that really makes a kuih distinct, in Malaysia at least. An array of factors makeup the definition of a Kuih but perhaps one should go with the most endearing and familiar of them all, and that is: like the food cliché goes, it is indeed made from a labour of love and act of passion albeit not in the ways one might assume.
Kuih recipes are often passed down through generations and reflective of a traditional spirit: recipes are often memorised by-heart with no use for a recipe book or notes. If this doesn’t give a clear enough illustration, just think grandma’s cookies or mother’s cupcakes.
The veritable and omnipresent ingredients in Kuih are the most common types of flours used in its making: almost always seldom wheat flour; rice flour, glutinous flour, tapioca flour and mung bean (green pea) flour are instead what go into the base or batter of the Kuih lending to its distinctive gelatine like texture of being soft yet firm. Another ingredient widespread to its making is the coconut in its many forms. And more often than not, the Kuih is steamed not baked like say a cookie or birthday cake.
In light of the upcoming Hari Raya season, what better way to warm up to it than to revisit popular kuih types served for the occasion?
A much-coveted favourite is the kuih koci which is pretty much a sweet chewy middle coated by a custard like layer. Wrapped entirely in pandan (aromatic tropical plant) leaves in a dumpling-like or pyramid-like shape the kuih koci is the sum of coconut: flesh, water and milk; gula melaka (palm sugar) and glutinous rice flour. Its taste vary from recipe to recipe as each family most probably has its own version and although its filling of coconut and palm sugar is usually brownish-yellowish, its outside layer can come in a few variations of colours: namely white, green, yellow and brown.
Another kuih worthy of mentioning is the tepung pelita. Also, famously known for its coconutty flavour and aroma, this kuih is made of rice flour, sugar syrup, coconut milk and boiled pandan leaves. The finished product is a square shaped kuih contained in a boat-like box made from banana leaves. It comes as a two-layered sort of square cupcake with the bottom part being sweet, coconutty and munchy to the taste buds and a creamy white layer to top it off. The creamy upper layer might take you by surprise with a hint of saltiness from the coconut milk that complements the rest of the kuih perfectly.
It goes without saying that the Onde-onde or Kuih melaka is perhaps the most iconic kuih of them all in this part of the world. However, make no mistake about it being widely popular outside of Malaysia as well. The Onde-onde finds its roots in Java, Indonesia where it’s called Klepon. This round rice cake is also a popular favourite in Singapore where the local Peranakans (mostly refers to descendants of Chinese immigrants who have adopted Malay/ Indonesian traditions and customs) remain age-old sentinels to its prized recipes. Comprising tapioca and glutinous rice flour, gula melaka, pandan leaves extract and coconut flakes or grated coconut, the Onde-onde has a sticky and soft outer shell with a thick and sweet brown liquid that fills it up. This kuih is best eaten popping the entire ball into one’s mouth as its highlight is the delicious sweet cream that oozes out once one sinks his or her teeth into it.
Another noteworthy kuih is the Bingka which, very interestingly, is deserving of its name not so much for the type of kuih that it is as the way it’s made. First and foremost, this kuih comes in two popular forms: ubi kayu (tapioca or Cassava to be exact) and pandan flavours. Unlike most kuih the Bingka is baked rather than steamed.
The ubi kayu version though baked isn’t cooked with any flour at all which explains its distinct texture from other cakes such as the common butter or chocolate cake. Instead of flour, this batter is a mixture of tapioca extract (of starchy consistency), grated tapioca, grated coconut, salt, sugar, butter and eggs. As most traditional kuih are, the making of this kuih too is simple. The batter is then baked at 180 degrees celcius for 45 minutes and thereafter you have a ready to serve kuih bingka. To the senses this kuih will feel soft, sticky and slightly doughy – quite like how a glutinous rice ball might feel; and possess a taste that holds the perfect combination between the tapioca and coconut.
As for the pandan version, it’s made of batter comprising wheat or glutinous flour, coconut milk, pandan leaves extract, sugar, salt and butter. The end result is similar to the first except for a smoother texture and an altered taste and aroma after having swapped the tapioca with pandan.
These are the basic kuih to gun for this coming Hari Raya as mentioned above. They really are the first must-haves before one considers the endless food choices during the festive season.
Words by Melissa Duis
Illustrations by Adel Saleh