The Colourful History Of Malaysian Kuih-Muih
Kuih. It’s a simple word that makes one's mouth water for it conjures nostalgia and unique local flavours. They can be found everywhere, 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. Banana leaf is used to wrap the kuih. The abundance of tapioca during the Japanese Occupation enabled the Malays to create 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 Peninsular Malaysia you can order kuih to be delivered to your home.
Kueh Cafe | No 6, Jalan Renang 13/26, Seksyen 13, Tadisma Business Park, 40100 Shah Alam, Selangor | +6012 640 0652
NyonyaLab | @nyonyalab on Instagram.
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih and Canteen
This renowned Penang outlet has been around for 80 years. It’s inconspicuous façade can make this place sometimes difficult to locate but it is definitely worth it.
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih and Canteen | Lebuh Chulia, Jalan Masjid, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang | +6012 415 2677
Baba Charlie Café
Besides kuih, it also serves laksa and nyonya dumplings.
Baba Charlie Cafe | 72, Jalan Tengkera Pantai 2, 75200 Melaka | +6010 401 3488