Syncretic story of Kuih reflects multicultural region

Syncretic story of Kuih reflects multicultural region
June 10, 2019

Kuih are most iconically associated with religious and cultural festivals such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Chinese New Year and Deepavali, but they are also a popular everyday food and the go-to dishes to serve to guests all year round.

The word kuih has Chinese origins, from the Hokkien character 粿, pronounced “kway”, while Cantonese speakers also have a similar word. 

However, various traditions involving the making of bite-sized delicacies amongst Malay and other Southeast Asian natives almost certainly stretches far back beyond the colonial-period encounter with Hokkien speakers.

Add to this that Indian cultures also shared their snacks, and you truly have a deliciously complicated history. 

Kuih denderam, also known as peniaram or peneram, is one example of adaptation from an Indian dessert. The fried kuih, popular in Malay households and Malaysian markets, came from the adhirasam which originated from South India and is still widely served during Indian festivities like weddings and Deepavali. 

The main difference is that the Indian version uses dried ginger and cardamom powder with rice flour and brown sugar, while denderam is simplified using only rice flour and gula melaka (palm sugar).

Age-old favourites 

Steaming is a key feature of sweetmeats in the region. Some scholars believe steaming coupled with fermentation was then brought over to India from Southeast Asia, a process that may have given birth to such south Indian staples like idlis. 

It would be impossible to speak of local steamed kuih without mentioning the kuih talam/seri muka/kuih salat family which brings together some of the most typical elements in Malaysian kuih, including steaming, rice flour and pandan (screwpine leaf), for a light and airy quality that isn’t too sweet. 

The kuih is characterised by its green pandan layer and diamond shape. Kuih talam’s second layer is made from lightly salted coconut cream, whereas seri muka swaps this for glutinous rice. The Peranakan version is often found with the a blue bunga telang (butterfly pea) tint to the glutinous rice. 

The Peranakans, descendants of ethnic Chinese who have adopted and adapted many Malay customs, are famous for their expertise in kuih making. Peranakan kuih evidence Chinese techniques like steaming and glutinous rice flour cake-making, with local ingredients like coconut milk and jam (kaya), pandan, gula melaka and bunga telang.    

You can find Peranakan kuih that are clearly more Chinese in origin like the ang ku kuih (red tortoiseshell cake) and those with Malay roots like kuih bangkit and wajik. While many others, like the seri muka and ondeh-ondeh, which may have come from Java where they are known as klepon, are so mixed that its hard to disentangle their true origins. 


Modern favourites 

Continued innovations can be seen in the latest kuih raya trends which have brought in western influences, resulting in concoctions like mini cheese cake tarts, cornflake cookies and kuih almond London. Bearing virtually no relationship to the British capital, the latter are crumbly chocolate-covered biscuits that incorporate almond flour and flakes. 

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that these tasty treats are simply the result of endless back-and-forth across peoples and oceans, so to speak of originators is to miss the beauty (and deliciousness) of lively cultural exchanges in a cosmopolitan region.