Illustrations by Derrick Schultz
Kuih is a Malaysian term for a wide variety of bite-sized savory snacks and sweet desserts. Most often steamed, but sometimes baked or grilled, kuih are usually made with rice flour or tapioca starch. They’re flavored with ingredients local to Southeast Asia and are enjoyed any time of day, typically with tea or coffee. Two of the most common flavorings are pandan, a tropical screw-pine plant with fragrant, bright green leaves that have a subtle but distinctive flavor described as “grassy vanilla with a hint of coconut”; and gula melaka, or palm sugar, a dark brown sweetener derived from the sap of sugar palm flowers.
Veronica Gan opened Kuih Café in a tiny storefront on Eldridge Street in Chinatown in early 2020. I met my friend Rashad there for lunch one day at his suggestion and immediately started following the Instagram feed where the café announces its dishes for the week. I try never to miss the salty egg butter chicken or the lontong, a deeply satisfying bright yellow curry soup. And after sampling the cara berlauk, small savory pancakes with curried beef, while researching this article, I now have another dish to plan my weekend around.
Although I had seen kuih at Malaysian restaurants before, I felt intimidated by their sheer variety, and since my palate leans more savory than sweet, I tended to pass them by. Veronica’s kuih are pretty and meticulously crafted; she only offers two or three at a time. I couldn’t help but notice how excited other customers were about them, so I started working my way through the menu and quickly realized what I had been missing.
Thanks to generous input from Veronica and her colleague Barnny Lim, what follows is the introduction to kuih I wish I had read years ago.
Nine layers of rice flour batter are carefully poured and steamed one at a time. Colors can vary, but the classic version has alternating pink and white layers. Kuih Café uses butterfly pea flowers for a bright blue hue, topped with a pink layer colored with dragon fruit juice.
This striking two-tone rice-flour kuih features a salty coconut layer over a sweet pandan layer, each thickened with tapioca starch and steamed. The balance of salty and sweet makes this one of my favorites, and it really spotlights the pandan flavor.
Baked grated cassava kuih with coconut milk, palm sugar, and eggs. Can also be steamed and lightly tossed with shredded coconut. The Filipino snack bibingka is similar.
This very popular kuih, made with rice and tapioca flours and sprinkled with grated coconut, is steamed in round molds. Traditionally flavored with palm sugar, though pandan is also common.
Pandan-flavored crepe filled with grated coconut mixed with palm sugar.
Very pretty round kuih often made with a tortoise-shaped mold that leaves an intricate pattern on the top. Bright orange outer skin is made of steamed glutinous rice flour and sweet potato puree. Filling can be grated coconut flavored with palm sugar or ground peanuts, but the most traditional consists of sweetened mung bean paste.
A layer of steamed, compressed glutinous rice, salted and often colored with butterfly pea flowers, is topped with steamed sweet pandan custard. The contrast in texture between the rice and custard layers is lovely.
This deceptively simple kuih also showcases contrasting textures, with a salty layer of compressed, steamed glutinous rice topped with a heaping layer of grated coconut flavored with palm sugar. Another similar kuih is Pulut Tai Tai, topped with a dollop of pandan kaya, a sweet coconut jam, in place of the grated coconut.
The only savory kuih on this list, pulut panggang is a long roll of coconut-flavored glutinous rice filled with a mixture of grated coconut, dry shrimp, and chili, all wrapped in banana leaves and pan grilled. It’s salty, savory, spicy, and slightly sweet, with the aroma of banana leaf. I like it best with a cup of coffee.
Kuih Café is open Friday through Sunday, serving a weekly selection of one or two savory dishes and a small number of kuih, plus a variety of baked goods and seasonal specialties for holidays.
Christian Schwartz is a type designer and a partner in Commercial Type. Veronica Gan is the chef at Kuih Café, and is passionate about making traditional Southeast Asian fare. Barnny Lim is a Swiss culinary school graduate and a retail professional.