Friday, 1 June 2012

Kaya – My Orange Memories

Half-boiled eggs, kaya toast and coffee has long been, and still is, a favorite breakfast with us Singaporeans.  It’s a polyglot breakfast if ever there was one; but that’s understandable given that we live in a polyglot nation fed by a dozen other food streams from our colonial past and neighboring countries. Breakfast -- like all our meals -- has become a heady culinary free-for-all… But hey, who’s complaining?

The story goes that Ya Kun, one of our earliest purveyors of bread toast with kaya, started with a single stall in the financial district decades ago. With the energy and ambition of the young, Ya Kun’s second generation of owners brought the juggernaut that is modern marketing into the game; and made half-boiled eggs and kaya toast stylish and with-it – whatever the time of day. Inevitably a slew of other brands and businesses jumped on the bandwagon: even the Singapore Tourism Board, which elevated this breakfast combo to one of the ‘must eats’ for visitors. And there, kaya stands today.

Kaya is made from a few basic ingredients: sugar, eggs, coconut milk and pandan leaves. It is believed that kaya originated from the Peranakans. Pandan is a tropical plant that grows in abundance in South-east Asia. Its long blade-like leaves cannot be eaten, but emit a wonderful fragrance when bruised or used in cooking. Blend the leaves and the resulting juice also makes a pretty green natural coloring for food.

I remember vividly my first sight, and taste, of kaya. It was a coffee shop. The kaya sat, in its bright reddish orange splendor, in a round tin can. The coffee shop assistant would spread a thick layer of margarine on the slice of bread, and then slather on the kaya. The flavor to a ten-year-old was heavenly, drawn as we instinctively were, to sugar and carbo.

Since then, my vision of kaya has always been orange – the color imprinted indelibly on me by those childhood encounters – even though the green ‘version’ is the more commonplace these days. The green in this, more recent, kaya is the result of the pandan juice added during cooking.

There is another green, custard-like version, known as Serikaya, that is eaten on its own, with bread, or as a component of Malay and Peranakan dessert cakes. The Hakkas too, have a kaya version of their own; this particular kaya has orange sugar or palm sugar (Gula Melaka) in it, giving it a taste that’s richer and mellower.

So now, the tastes and orange memories come flooding back as I cook the following recipe…


Eggs                             15, about 50 g each
Orange sugar              400 g
Fresh coconut milk     500 g
Pandan leaves             10, tied into a knot

  1. Mix all ingredients in a heavy-base pot, and simmer.
  2. Stir continually until the mixture thickens. Keep the temperature low and don’t overcook it or the egg will curdle. If it does curdle, simply blend the mixture with an electric mixer. Remove pandan leaves.
  3. Cool and store in a bottle.

Note:   There is another, easier way to cook kaya. Pour all ingredients into a slow pot and turn it to HIGH. Stir the mixture occasionally until the mixture thickens. If you prefer Pandan Kaya, substitute the orange sugar with castor sugar. Then blend pandan leaves and extract 50 g of juice and add it into the batter. The version I’ve given is less sweet than usual, if you prefer it sweeter, simply increase the sugar to your taste.