Kuih: What Is It And Where To Try It In Hong Kong
Diminutive in size yet vibrantly coloured, kuih is a category of desserts that can be found everywhere in Malaysia, from street markets to high-end eateries. There is a variety of kuih—most are sweet but some are savoury, such as kuih cara berlauk (minced meat coated in pancake batter) and cucur badak (sweet potato dumpling with dried shrimps).
“Kuih is a Malay word used to describe bite-sized snacks such as cakes, biscuits, bread and even porridge. The term is used generically to mean Malay desserts,” says Hidayah Amin, author of Kuih: From Apam to Wajik, a Pictorial Guide to Malay Desserts.
“However, during 1960s and before, the term kuih is referred to pencuci mulut, which literally means ‘to wash the mouth’ or dessert after every meal. These included jelly or traditional kuih. Nowadays, the definition of kuih encompasses biscuits and cakes.”
Writer, cookbook author and culinary instructor Christopher Tan has a more practical approach.
“Kuih can be boiled, baked, pan-fried, steamed, deep-fried, fermented, leaf-wrapped, slow-stirred and even sun-dried, or prepared with various combinations of the above processes. They can be sweet or savoury or finely balanced in between. They run a wide gamut. So clearly the qualifiers cannot be simply physical. Mostly, we know something is a kuih if we have been told since childhood that this is a kuih because history and tradition identify it as such,” says Tan, the author of The Way of Kuih.
Regardless, kuih has a culinary legacy going back to the 15th century. It flourished in Southeast Asia, developing from a combination of local ingredients and food brought over through trade or colonisation. Some say the name ‘kuih’ derives from the Hokkien ‘kue’, referring to traditional cakes made of rice flour or glutinous rice flour. Others say the name is from Zhangzhou, a Fujian dialect slowly incorporated into the region’s local languages.
“We cannot pinpoint the exact beginning of kuih," says Tan. "As long as the culture had access to rice, coconut and palm sugar, recipes are bound to evolve around them—and of course, these ingredients have long been common in this region. Well before recorded food history, Southeast Asians were making sweet and savoury bites from local and ‘imported’ ingredients. Migration, colonisation, modernisation and globalisation have all influenced the creation and evolution of kuih."
Kuih can be found all over Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia. While they may not be called ‘kuih’, versions of it can also be found in Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.
“A type of kuih can be different in different places. For example, kuih bangkit in Malaysia is shaped with wooden moulds whereas in Singapore and Indonesia, it is traditionally cut out and decorated with metal pincers,” Tan adds.
In Malaysia, traditional kuih was not made with butter, baking powder or ovalette. Instead, Malay women would dry flour under the sun so that the kuih would rise when baked.
“During the pre-war days, the Malays would use whatever ingredients that were easily available in their surroundings to make kuih," notes Hidayah. "For instance, sago palm trees and coconut were used to make abuk-abuk sagu (steamed sago cake). Banana leaf is used to wrap the kuih. The abundance of tapioca during the Japanese Occupation enabled the Malays to create [varieties like] kuih talam and tapai."
Another local group commonly associated with Malaysian kuih is the Nyonya. Hidayah says most nyonya kuih are similar to Malay kuih, except for some differences. For example, some nyonya kuih are made with lard. Peranakan kuih sometimes uses food colouring, while Malay kuih usually have natural colouring such as pandan.
While there are many regional differences in the making of kuih, it is important to remember they all share a common history.
“When I was writing my book, I specifically focused on the similarities and relationships between the kuihs from different places. Because they can span continents and centuries, I find the connections much more interesting than the differences,” says Tan.
“Also, as a type of food associated with family and festival celebrations, traditional kuih and kuih-making is all about bringing people together. Something I think we are all increasingly forgetting in the modern era when most kuih are purchased instead of homemade.”
Here are a few places in Hong Kong where you can sample these eclectic Malaysian desserts for yourself:
Bibi & Baba
Helmed by Malaysian chef Ho Wai-kong, this Wan Chai restaurant offers a tasting platter of kuih for those trying the desserts for the first time.
Bibi & Baba, 7 Ship Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Hotel Jen's popular Singaporean and Malaysian restaurant serves kuih dadar (pandan-flavoured crepe roll with grated coconut in palm sugar) and abok abok (tapioca pearls steamed in banana leaf).
Cafe Malacca, Level 2, Jen Hong Kong by Shangri-La, 508 Queen's Road West, Shek Tong Tsui, Hong Kong
Newly opened in IFC mall, Can Lah serves a dessert platter with four types of kuih, including ondeh ondeh (coconut rice cake balls), keih dadar, bingka ubi kaya (baked tapioca cake), and kuih salat (glutinous rice cake with pandan custard).
Can Lah, Shop 3075, 3/F, IFC, 1 Harbour View Street, Central, Hong Kong