Kuih: From Apam to Wajik, a Pictorial Guide to Malay Desserts is a charming illustrative of 120 Malay kuih, aims to encourage a deeper cultural understanding of the diversity of Malay kuih. Kuih is a Malay word used to describe bite-sized snacks such as cakes, biscuits, bread and porridge. Kuih is used generically to mean Malay desserts. Other words describing kuih are penganan and kudapan.
The Malays love their kuih. In most households, there would be pencuci mulut (which literally means ‘to wash the mouth’) or dessert after every meal. The author remembers growing up in Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion) in Kampong Gelam, where her grandmother would always ensure that there would be some kuih spread out on the table during teatime. Her grandmother would prepare some desserts or simply buy them from their neighbours in Kampong Gelam who sold kuih. There were also kuih sellers who made their rounds in the village, carrying trays or baskets filled with kuih-muih (meaning ‘a variety or assortment of kuih‘). Some of the peddlers were children who sold kuih to supplement their family’s meagre household incomes. The children would be given some pocket money for their hard work.
Kuih is ubiquitously present in almost all Malay festivities, wedding celebrations, thanksgiving feasts and even in everyday meals like breakfast. During Hari Raya Puasa (Eid-ul Fitr), we would have kuih as kepala meja (literally, head of table), serving it as the main dish at the table. For the longest time, in the author’s household, her grandmother’s famous agar-agar kering (crystallised jellies) was served as their family’s kepala meja.
Many of us have tasted Malay kuih and know how they look like, but do we know the stories behind the names and origins of the kuih we love to eat? Why is a certain kuih of a particular shape or colour? What are the similarities between some kuih from the Malay diaspora?
The author realises, sometimes, we take our heritage food for granted; seeing how easy it is to buy them from shops in Singapore or even order them from kuih sellers. But what happens when the kuih maker passes on and takes the knowledge of kuih to his or her grave? What if there were no successors to inherit the skills of making kuih? The next generation would probably not have any knowledge of making authentic and tasty kuih.
Hence, it is against this background that the author wrote this pictorial guide. The list of 120 kuih-muih in this guide is certainly not an exhaustive one, as there may well be other kuih stories yet to be told. Upon consultation with her guru memasak (cooking teacher), Madam Sulimah Mohamed, the author elected to omit some kuih that do not belong to the Malays (though Malays eat and make them too). Some examples are pau (steamed Chinese buns), popiah (Chinese spring rolls), karipap (rectangular and triangular Indian curry puffs) and other kuih that use yam as the main ingredient (yam is usually associated with Chinese cakes).
Perhaps, decades of cross assimilation between the different ethnicities have resulted in food hybridisation to a certain extent, with ethnic groups seeking to stake claims on the origins of certain types of kuih. Based on her knowledge and consultative research, the author had used best efforts to try and capture the stories of authentic Malay kuih, so as to share them with other kuih lovers. May this pictorial guide be the sweet start of your gourmet adventure into the world of Malay kuih!