The theme for this month’s StarTwo column is kuih, and we all found it so challenging. All the recipes we found in cookbooks do not work, and in the end the best source was cooks who are familiar with making kuih.
It’s a real shame because it means that most of us will probably know how to bake cakes and pies and cookies, but not kuih. The word kuih is often translated as local cakes, and that is in essence what it is. We don’t use butter and cream, but kuih making is all about turning local ingredients into the most delicious desserts.
The ingredients for kuih are from plants that grow abundantly in the backyard like sweet potatoes, tapioca, bananas and taro; flavoured with coconut and palm sugar, and fragranced with pandan leaves.
In the hands of an expert, these ingredients come together perfectly balanced in delightful morsels that are soothingly sweet and lemak. The texture of the kuih should be fine, and its sweetness and richness never cloying (tak jelak).
Most traditional kuih – whether Malay or Peranakan – use rice flour as its main ingredient. I remember the big stone grinder in the kitchen of the prewar ancestral home in Penang that my aunt lives in. Her late mother-in-law made Nyonya kuih to sell in the market, and my aunt was the only daughter-in-law who learnt the art from her.
One of the most back-breaking task must have been the grinding of the rice to be made into flour. Later, they upgraded to an electric grinder, and now they buy the rice flour in sacks.
Even with the help of machines (and more recently hired help with the intake of Indonesian maids), making nyonya kuih is a laborious task.
When we were kids, I remembered that my cousins didn’t get much free time to play. All hands were needed in the kitchen because there were so many chores – cleaning, cutting and laying the banana leaves, washing the teacups for the huat kuih and kuih kosui, moulding the ang koo, washing trays, arranging the kuihs… etc etc etc.
Then, my aunt seemed formiddable…I suppose she had to be stern because I was always trying to distract my cousins, and when I tried to help I probably just created more errors to be undone (like flattened ang ku because I didn’t know how to unmould it). In hindsight, I guess my aunt was just plain tired, all the time.
But at least she enjoyed the fruits of her labour, going for holidays overseas every year. Her favourite destination: USA.
While my grandmother was around, we had kuih often at home. They were not pretty dainty Nyonya kuih, but more like home-made kuih she rustled out quickly and efficiently. She made steamed ubi kayu with grated coconut, or deep-fried potato balls. There were also pulut inti, and yam cake, and kuih bengka, and sago with grated coconut. And coating everything from banana to ubi keledek to cempedak to nien gao with batter, and deep-frying them was another quick way to make kuih.
Making kuih kosui reminded me of those afternoon teas. It’s somehow not the same making kuih for 2 persons to eat, and it doesn’t seem worth the effort when there is so many left on the plate.
Still, I wanted to try and make kuih, if nothing else because I remembered it as being effortless. So, without referring to a cookbook, I made kuih keria – sweet potato doughnut – from memory.
I boiled the sweet potatoes, mashed them up, and added sugar and flour. Then, I shaped them into doughnuts – but because I am so rusty from lack of practice (and I was rushing because I wanted to watch American Idol), my kuih keria is knobbly and wonky.
Then, I deep-fried them, and rolled them around in sugar.
They are ugly, but they taste like how kuih keria is supposed to taste like … and I love them so much more than Krispy Kreme. And American Idol is so boring, I should have taken the time to do my kuih keria properly!
And when I was cutting up the sweet potatoes, I also thought of sweet potato balls, and boiled sweet potatoes in palm sugar syrup and old ginger (I swear I could smell it in my head).