Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Mother of All Kayas

I guess it’s just me…but I’ve always thought “kaya” was very aptly named. Because, whatever the actual origins, the word “kaya” is Malay for “rich”. And a good kaya is richness incarnate -- in texture, aroma, taste, and sheer satisfaction. Kaya transforms a slice of toast into an event.

The popularity of kaya and toast belies the fact that it is nothing new; in fact it’s so old hat to Singaporeans, it’s like, our national snack. You see it eaten morning, noon and night everywhere, and a small coffee shop has spun a mega-franchise on the back of this humble repast.

And humble its beginnings were. I remember the mini charcoal grill tucked into the corner of every old neighborhood coffee shop. It heated the copper tea/coffee container with the long needle spout, and I always associated kaya with this grill as the bread was invariably toasted on it.

I remember the white slice of bread laid on the carbon-encrusted wire, slowly darkening to golden brown over the charcoal. When nicely crisp, the bread, with parallel stripes burnt into it, would be spread with margarine or tiled with thick slices of “Cold Storage” butter, and then slathered with kaya (or sugar if preferred). Coffee or tea would complete it. Cheap. Simple. Utterly old school.

Kaya is unique to Singapore and Malaysia, I think, and I recall seeing two principal kinds in those days. The orange-colored kaya tasted cheap and was the most common variety used by coffee shops, bakery shops, bicycle hawkers, and the like. The other light green variety was usually homemade and lightly flavoured with pandan.

However, the most rare form of kaya was Serikaya. Today, Serikaya is nearly impossible to find, and most Singaporeans have never heard of it. Even in the early days, only well-to-do Peranakan households prepared Serikaya, and usually for their own consumption. Serikaya is custard made of eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, with pandan leaves added for a hint of fragrance. It was laborious to prepare and didn’t have a long shelf life, especially in an age where refrigerators were scarce.

I, too, was fairly late coming to Serikaya, and encountered it in my teens via a classmate, a true blue Peranakan. She lived in a sprawling bungalow in Pasir Panjang. We would go, my other classmates and I, to her house after school for cakes and pastry prepared by her domestic help. Serikaya would be the highlight, cut in thick slices and sandwiched in freshly toasted bread. The custard would be soft and rich with the flavor of coconut, and laced with the scent of pandan. It was out of this world.

Obtaining the recipe required epic effort. As with most cooks of that time, the “amah” (domestic help) claimed to have no recipe, and cooked by memory and estimation. On top of that, the Peranakan tradition of jealously guarding their “secrets” was legendary. I spent months cajoling her before she finally “broke”. I was allowed into the kitchen to watch. I had to make quick mental notes, and later, through trial and error, was finally able to replicate the taste and consistency. Here then is the elusive Serikaya.


Duck eggs                            10, or 12 chicken eggs
Sugar                                     450 g
Fresh thick coconut milk    250 ml (from one coconut)
Salt                                         ½ tsp
Pandan leaves                     10, score the leaves before tying a knot

1.     Stir egg and sugar gently using a whisk, without causing too much frothing, until the sugar dissolves.
2.     Add coconut milk and pandan leaves; stir well.
3.     Pass the mixture through a fine muslin cloth into a heavy pot.
4.     Set over low heat, cook and stir until the mixture has thickened slightly.
5.     Pour into a baking tin, and place the pandan leaves on top. Cover with an aluminium foil. Pierce the aluminium foil with a few holes.
6.     Steam for 1½ hours.
7.     Remove the tin and let it cool.
8.     Serikaya must be kept in a fridge and is best eaten within a week.