There’s never a bad time to have a piece of kuih (or two, or three). They come savoury and sweet, steamed and fried, filled and plain; there are so many types that there’s bound to be a kuih for everyone.
Alternative spellings for the Malay word kuih include kue (Indonesia) and kueh in the Hokkien dialect, most often used in Singapore. It’s also synonymous with the Chinese character糕 (gao). Over the years, kuih has grown to encompass most types of desserts including cookies, dumplings, biscuits, pastries and more.
Every culture in Malaysia has some type of dessert that falls under the kuih category, and the intermingling of traditions sometimes means that the origins of a particular type of kuih gets quite murky as people adopt and adapt traditional recipes.
Photo: Bryan Ong
In our experience, Indian kuih embraces the same philosophy as the rest of Indian culture: colourful and over-the-top. The sweet kuihs, in particular, are very sugary and are known collectively in India as mithai.
Clockwise from left:
- Ulundu vadai – Vadai is a collective term to describe fried snacks and it’s one of the most popular savoury Indian snacks. Dal (pulsed lentils – the yellow gravy you eat with roti canai) are often used to make these. The fluffy doughnut-like medhu / ulundu vadai is usually eaten for breakfast.
- Laddu – A well-known Indian sweet, laddu is a confection made from different combinations of grains, fruits and sugar, which is cooked in ghee (clarified butter) and moulded into a bite-sized ball. You’ll often see these at celebrations or religious festivities.
- Mysore pak – A fudgy sweet also made with flour, sugar and ghee.
- Samosa – A heartier snack with fillings like minced meat and potatoes in a crispy shell. Best eaten piping hot.
- Parrupu vadai – This type of vadai is said to be more flavourful than the ulundu vadai.
- Sohan/soan papdi – Using similar ingredients as the mysore pak and laddu, sohan papdi can come in a few different forms: flaky and cube-shaped or a harder version of a Swiss roll.
- Coconut candy – This brightly-coloured treat crumbles in your mouth; we recommend small bites to avoid sugar overload!
Photo: Bryan Ong
Chinese and Nyonya
While the Chinese have a wealth of sweets and pastries, the ones that kuih or gao usually apply to are the steamed sort.
It’s often quite difficult to determine whether a particular kuih is Chinese or Nyonya in origin, especially because half of Nyonya culture is Chinese (Nyonya generally refers to a mix of Chinese and Malay culture, which happened when Chinese immigrants assimilated into the local population).
Clockwise from left:
- Fa gao – This is also known as a ‘prosperity cake’ for its name is a homonym with the Chinese word for prosperity. However, it’s almost tasteless and is eaten more for luck than flavour. Another variant is the shocking pink-and-yellow cupcakes you might have seen offered at temples.
- Kuih lapis – The Nyonya rendition of this popular steamed layer cake is time-consuming to make as you have to laboriously dye and steam the layers one by one. They say you’re meant to peel off each layer to eat it as each represents a stage of life to be savoured; slicing it in half means you’re cutting your life short!
- Kuih talam – This two-layer snack is one of the most iconic kuihs around and has a white layer of coconut milk, rice flour and green pea flour on top of a denser green pandan layer, thanks to the addition of tapioca flour.
- Seri muka – Another all-time favourite, the seri muka is easy to like with its sweet green pandan (screwpine)-flavoured custard layer atop glutinous rice.
- Yu tou gao – This grey yam cake is steamed, topped with chopped onions and dried shrimp, then eaten with chilli sauce.
- Ang ku kueh – Named ‘red tortoise cake’ for its resemblance to a tortoise shell, this chewy cake is a staple in this category. It’s made from glutinous rice with a mung bean or peanut filling and is said to bring longevity and fortune. It’s also often used as a religious offering.
- Pulut tai tai – This kuih is made with glutinous rice and coloured with the juice of blue pea flowers (bunga telang). Though somewhat bland on its own, it makes a perfect pair with sweet kaya (coconut jam) and the two usually go hand-in-hand.
- Chai kuih – These steamed vegetable dumplings contain shredded turnip, mushrooms and other vegetables, much like dim sum dumplings.
- Pulut inti – Similar to pulut tai tai, pulut inti distinguishes itself with a cute presentation wrapped in banana leaf and the addition of coconut toppings.
Photo: Bryan Ong
Coconut features heavily in Malay kuihs, whether it’s shredded or santan (coconut milk). While flavourful, this does mean that the kuihs have to be eaten fresh or refrigerated as they will spoil otherwise.
Palm sugar (gula Melaka) is also a common ingredient in these kuihs and generally forms the filling. Like Chinese and Nyonya kuihs, most Malay kuihs are steamed, sometimes in banana leaves for added fragrance. You’ll find that many kuihs here overlap with those in the Nyonya category too.
- Ondeh-ondeh – These chewy rice flour balls are fun to make – the trick is making sure the gula Melaka doesn’t leak while it’s cooking. The sweet gula Melaka bursts upon the tongue when bitten and it’s hard to stop at eating just one of these.
- Kuih ketayap – It’s a rolled pandan pancake filled with coconut and gula Melaka.
- Kuih koci – A triangular rice flour dumpling stuffed with gula Melaka and coconut.
- Kuih sago – Primarily made from sugar and tapioca pearls (sago), this gluten-free dessert is flavoured with rose essence and is found in either vibrant green or red hues.
- Pulut inti – See the Nyonya section above.
- Kuih kosui – This steamed cake is made from gula Melaka, rice flour and tapioca starch – personally, one of my favourites.
- Kuih lopes – This may look remarkably similar to ondeh-ondeh, but instead of having gula Melaka inside the actual kuih, the palm sugar is turned into a syrup that’s poured on top of the kuih.
- Seri muka – See the Nyonya section above.
- Kuih bingka ubi – The name means ‘baked tapioca cake’ and this chewy kuih’s best part is said to be the crispy brown edges.
- Kuih puteri ayu – This cake’s name is ‘pretty princess cake’ and I have to admit it is easy on the eyes! It’s a steamed sponge cake with coconut topping and some may even have it with a dollop of kaya.