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A Vegan Guide to Eating Malaysian Kuih (Local Cakes)

Malaysian local cakes – known as “kuih” to locals – are delightful breakfast and teatime favourites. Many of them are dainty and painstakingly prepared for a yummy eating experience.

Malaysia has a vast array of local cakes or desserts coming mainly from the Malay and Nyonya culture. Nyonya culture refers to a special community in Malaysia and Singapore who are known as the Peranakan people. This community has a unique lifestyle established by Chinese people who adopted local customs of the Malay people.

The main differences between western cakes and local kuih are:

  1. There is usually no leavening agent in the recipe for kuih
  2. Butter or margarine is seldom used or used sparingly in making kuih
  3. Kuih are usually cooked using the steaming method rather than baking as in western cakes
  4. Coconut milk and palm sugar are favourite ingredients in kuih, something that western cakes seldom use

However, what may seemingly be a charming mix of flour, sugar and coconut milk, may in fact contain eggs, anchovies or even beef, something unwary diners may not be aware of. Thus it is important for vegans to know what ingredients go into preparing many of the typical Malay kuih so that they know what is safe for them.

The following is a a partial list of famous kuih that are widely available in Malaysia. Of course, each particular state in Malaysia has its own specialties that are not found elsewhere. It is not possible to cover all the states in Malaysia, so we will stick to what is generally available in Kuala Lumpur. We have included pictures of non-vegan kuih, although it is our policy not to do so on this website; the purpose is solely to familiarise diners with the names of these kuih so that they may avoid non-vegan items.

Do ask the vendors first before making a purchase whether there are non-vegan ingredients in the kuih. It is advisable that you ask specifically whether there is dairy milk, chicken, beef, anchovies, dried prawns, eggs.

Kuih Lapis – Steamed Layer Cake

A true labour of love! Consisting of multi-coloured layers of kuih, most famously in white and pink layers; this dessert can be found in many markets. Tapioca flour, rice flour, coconut milk and sugar are the main ingredients. The tedious part involves steaming the cake mixture layer after layer.

Putu Piring – Steamed Rice Cake with Coconut and Palm Sugar Filling

A popular steamed rice cake usually sold at night markets, the main ingredients are rice flour, palm sugar, and grated coconut. A mould is used to shape the rice flour into which a sweet filling is added and then the snack is steamed.

Ondeh-ondeh – Glutinous Rice Balls with Palm Sugar Filling

These tasty kuih are made from glutinous rice flour, corn flour, palm sugar and grated coconut. The dough is divided into tiny balls which are dropped in boiling water to cook. The cooked desserts are then rolled in grated coconut.

Kuih Kosui – Tapioca Flour and Palm Sugar Steamed Cake

Dark palm sugar produces the lovely brown colour and taste of this steamed kuih. It can be cooked in trays or moulds and then rolled with grated coconut. The main ingredients are palm sugar, tapioca flour and grated coconut.

Pulut Inti – Steamed Glutinous Rice with Sweet Coconut Topping

Glutinous rice is steamed with coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves. A delicious topping made of grated coconut cooked with palm sugar is added on top.

Lepat Pisang – Steamed Banana Cake Wrapped in Banana Leaf

Lepat Pisang can be best described as the steamed version of Cenkodok Pisang. Mashed ripe bananas are mixed with all-purpose wheat flour, rice flour, palm sugar and grated coconut. It is a relief to find that eggs are not used in this recipe. Some versions have an additional filling of grated coconut mixed with sugar.

Kuih Talam – Layered Cake

Kuih Talam is a generic name for cakes that are steamed in trays, derived from its name talam which means tray. This two layered cake is a popular afternoon dessert. There are 2 layers in this kuih, the most popular version is a white and green kuih with the top white layer made up of coconut and the bottom green layer flavoured with pandan juice. The top layer of the cake is made from coconut milk, rice flour and cornstarch. The bottom green layer is made from fresh pandan juice, tapioca flour, rice flour, green peas flour and sugar. Other popular versions include a white and brown layered cake, consisting of coconut and tapioca latyers.

Kuih Kochi/koci – Black Glutinous Rice Snack Wrapped in Banana Leaf

Kuih Kochi is made from black glutinous rice flour, palm sugar and grated coconut as its main ingredients. It is a delightful kuih that is wrapped in banana leaf and has a coconut and palm sugar filling.

Kuih Sagu – Sago Cake

As the name indicates, this cake is made of sago. It has the consistency of a soft jelly, usually has a pink colour, and is coated with grated coconut that definitely makes this kuih stand out.

Tepung Pelita – Rice Flour Boat (Usually Vegan)

The top layer is soft and creamy due to coconut milk mixed with rice flour. The bottom layer is made up of rice flour mixed with pandan juice.

Kuih Rengas – Mung Bean Fritters

A nutritious kuih made from boiled mung beans, Kuih Rengas is one of a kind among the generally carbohydrate rich array of Malay kuih. The main ingredients, apart from mung beans, are grated coconut, sugar and wheat flour. This crispy kuih is delicious and goes well for any occasion.

Kuih Lopes – Steamed Glutinous Rice Cakes with Palm Sugar Dipping

Glutionous rice is steamed with coconut milk and pandan juice to give a rich green cake that is then tossed in grated coconut. This dessert is usually served with a palm sugar dipping.

Kuih Apom Kukus – Steamed Pancake

A deliciously simple kuih made from all-purpose wheat flour, sugar and yeast. The mixture is steamed to form a lovely termite-nest pattern and then tossed in grated coconut.

Kuih Keria – Sweet Potato Doughnuts

A delightful version of doughnut made from sweet potatoes, with the addition of all-purpose wheat flour and a little tapioca flour, this snack is fried and then coated with caramel. It is a delicious option for vegans, although just like doughnuts, it could be quite high in calories due to the frying in oil and then coating with sugar.

Source: Malaysian Vegan

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