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Published: Sunday August 3, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday August 3, 2014 MYT 10:05:00 AM

Kaya: A rich spread

Return kaya to the breakfast table with new varieties of quick-cooking coconut jam.

THE recipe for kaya that rings in my head is measured out in ratios: one bowl eggs to one bowl sugar, and one bowl coconut milk. That’s the kind of recipe that is easily committed to mind – and heart – for generations of homemakers like my mother.

Kaya is a rich egg and coconut jam scented with pandan leaves. It is a typical Malaysian jam, but is also popular in Singapore, Indonesia (seri kaya), Thailand (sangkhaya) and the Philippines (matamís sa báo).

Like any jam, it has copious amounts of sugar. Sugar is what conserves the jam, and also contributes sweetness, stickiness and colour. The characteristic golden brown of kaya is due in part to egg yolks and the caramelisation of sugar.

Before the rise of industrialisation, most foods were preserved by a salt and/or sugar cure. Sugar acts to increase osmotic pressure, drawing out water from living tissues, which dehydrate and kill bacteria that cause decay.

In jam making, the idea is to remove as much water as you can – to between 10% and 30% – without losing palatability. The conundrum of kaya making is a recipe calling for egg and coconut milk, two temperamental ingredients that tend to curdle in high heat.

Hence, kaya needs to be double-boiled on low heat over a long period of time – anywhere between four and eight hours – to evaporate the moisture and caramelise the sugar.

Cooked this way, kaya can keep for one to two weeks without refrigeration – in the days when refrigerators were considered a luxury, kaya reposed in wooden airing cupboards used as a larder. That’s how my mother kept her kaya and I don’t ever remember a batch of kaya spoiling – it didn’t have a chance to last past its expiry date anyway!

I also remember the inconsistencies in the kaya: it could turn out lumpy or smooth, a lovely golden brown, like yellow-green poop, or ash tinged. My mother could only roll her eyes.

Anyone who has tried to make kaya would know how fickle the process is – you have a 50:50 chance of success at making a smooth, golden kaya.

My last batch of kaya – made without a double boiler, haha – was lumpy and coarse, and pale and shitty looking even after six hours in a slow oven. The same recipe had yielded a drool-worthy kaya previously.

That riled me so much I promptly set out to make a quick kaya that will always return a smooth and velvety mouthfeel and takes only about 15 minutes.

A kaya – when you are not obsessed with producing something that will keep without refrigeration – is simply a thick custard sauce. To make, just mix the ingredients together and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk or spatula, until the mixture sets into a smooth custard.

How viscous is up to you; I like mine to plop from the spoon, like cake batter of dropping consistency.

Patience is needed in spades in kaya making. Or, you can employ kitchen science. For certainty beyond doubt – use a thermometer. It all boils down to the science of cooking egg and we know that egg yolk sets at around 63°C and white at 60°C. Egg custard ideally should not be heated above 85°C. (In a double-boiler, the temperature hovers around that if you use really low heat – the water is barely bubbling and the kaya is steaming.)

Most harmful bacteria are also killed once the temperature reaches 65°C – coupled with the high sugar content, kaya is quite well preserved. Keeping it in the fridge adds a third layer of insurance.

My excuse for resorting to a quick kaya, apart from the fact that I do like its specific taste, is that we don’t own airing cupboards anymore and keep kaya in the fridge, so why labour over making kaya the old way?

The almost-instant kaya

A quick kaya has its own merit. It is not the same animal – the traditional egg and coconut jam has an unctuous, rich and eggy taste while the taste – and colour – of a quick kaya is derived from palm sugar or caramel. Hence, it can be called caramel kaya or palm sugar kaya.

Caramel or palm sugar is essential to making quick kaya – without the benefit of slow-cooking, the sugar does not get caramelised. Caramelised sugar is what gives kaya its deep, lingering taste.

It’s rather clever to return this taste to quick kaya using caramel. Caramel can be easily made by melting sugar in a pan over low heat until it turns a golden brown colour – this takes five to 10 minutes. The minute you catch a whiff of its rich, sweet and nutty scent – or see smoke rising – remove it from heat.

There is always the risk of burning the caramel – just a second too late will render your caramel bitter and useless. For this reason, using palm sugar is the easier way to make quick kaya. And a good quality palm sugar is delicious in its own right.

If anything, you could argue that the quick kaya lacks the soul of traditional kaya ... hey, something has to give.

Pumpkin kaya, etc.

I thought I would make pumpkin kaya after I tried a pumpkin jam and was struck by how similar it was in texture and mouthfeel to coconut and egg jam.

Start the preservation with curing the pumpkin in sugar. Combine the pumpkin cubes and the sugar in a mixing bowl and set in the fridge overnight. The next morning, the pumpkin will be covered in syrup – the sugar has drawn the water from the pumpkin.

There may be enough liquid to cook the pumpkin without having to add additional water. But you can add water – or add the coconut milk once the liquid has evaporated – to cook the pumpkin until very soft.

The jam can be flavoured with vanilla, orange zest, and thin slices of orange including its peel – which makes a pumpkin kaya-orange marmalade jam.

Then I thought I could make taro kaya as well. I was familiar with the taste of ohr nee, a Teochew sweet taro paste and knew it was possible to make taro kaya. It’s nice, but the kaya is rather grey in colour. So the next time round, I added some purple sweet potato to the mix, and violà, a pink kaya!

You can add a little, or a lot, of purple sweet potato to the recipe, depending on the shade and taste you want to achieve.

As these kayas contain no egg or dairy, they are vegetarian friendly.

Related story:
For the recipes, go to "Not your usual kaya"

Tags / Keywords: kaya

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