Sweet and savoury, colourful and plain – Malaysian kuih come in many varieties and are eaten at all times of the day.
Ask the question “How many types of Malaysian kuih are there?” and you will likely get a blank stare. A thoughtful pause after,“I don’t know”, or “I don’t care”, are typical answers, or one starts hazarding a wild guess.
I attempted to make a list but trailed off after 128 or so as the task got more demanding. The same kuih may be known by several different names. Ketayap and Kuih Dadar both refer to a pandan-flavoured crepe roll filled with palm sugar and grated coconut.
Are Puteri Mandi and Badak Berendam the same kuih? Sometimes Puteri Mandi has a topping of freshly grated coconut – perhaps the princess needs to perfume her bath water with white jasmine (symbolised by the coconut confetti) but soaking hippo doesn’t care much for flowers.
What is certain, is that we have a great variety of kuih-muih made by the various ethnic groups – indication that kuih making is a rich and deeply entrenched tradition in Malaysia.
The greatest variety of kuih is made by the Malay community, followed by the Chinese, with some contributions coming from the Indian and other communities. The nonyas are particularly known for their kuih making prowess and love for it, and some of the most popular kuih around can be traced back to them.
The Malays tend to have a more poetic convention of naming kuih, imbuing the sweetcakes with romanticism and mystery: Cik Mek Molek (pretty miss), Badak Berendam (bathing hippo), Puteri Mandi (bathing princess), Nagasari (mythical dragon), Terang Bulan (bright moon), etc. Some, like Lompat Tikam, cannot be sensibly translated.
The Chinese are more prosaic, naming them by their obvious physical attributes: Kow Chan Kuih (nine-layer kuih), Woon Cai Koh (little bowl cake), Huat Kuih (risen cake), and Ang Koo Kuih for a tortoise-shaped red sweetcake.
But what is a kuih? A definition seems elusive.
If you say “sweetcakes” you can easily be proven wrong for savoury examples abound. If you say that kuih are desserts you will also run afoul for many would tell you that kuih are eaten at any time of the day, and not always at the end of a meal.
We can, however, make some true inferences about what a kuih is. Kuih can be sweet or savoury, but are mostly sweet and come in bite-size portions. They are eaten at any time of the day – like a snack – but are especially popular for breakfast and afternoon tea, and yes, at the end of a meal too.
Kuih are very much a part of the socio-cultural fabric; some have an important place in ceremonial practices, rituals, and celebrations. Huat Kuih are part of the goodies offered to deities and gods on Chinese altar tables and Ang Koo Kuih are served up for auspicious occasions like birthdays as the tortoise is symbolic of longevity and red is a propitious colour.
The love of colours is played up in the art of kuih making; one is often struck by how colourful the kuih are. Malay kuih makers especially revel in adding more colours to their creations. And therein lies the bane – the use of artificial colouring, which is not really good for health and gives a false sense of flavour when there is none.
What is amazing is that despite the endless variety, the sweet kuih are made using only relatively few ingredients: rice flour, sticky rice, sticky rice flour, coconut milk, grated coconut, palm sugar, sugar, pandan leaf, banana leaf, sweet potato, tapioca, taro, and banana.
Savoury kuih employ a more varied list of ingredients, which include meat, spices and curry powders, and may be served with chilli sauce or other sauces such as sweet brown sauce.
Artificial flavourings like rose and vanilla essence, colouring, and leaveners such as yeast, baking powder and baking soda follow industrialisation, and brought about more varieties of kuih.
A unique aspect of kuih is that it is usually picked up and eaten with the fingers. Most kuih are essentially firmly set puddings and custards that can be cut into pieces with a knife. They are eaten from the hand and do not require cutlery. This also makes them highly portable snacks that can be eaten on the go.
This aspect puts kuih very much within the realm of the Malay and Indian gastronomic tradition of eating with the hands sans cutlery, making kuih a part of the Malay food ways.