James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

When In Doubt, Order All the Bite‑Sized Desserts for Breakfast

When In Doubt, Order All the Bite‑Sized Desserts for Breakfast

Nyonyas Kuih in Penang

I’m late, as usual, and hot. This Saturday morning is all blue skies and humidity, and the breakfast hawkers have either left or hidden their tables under foliage of green, red, and blue beach umbrellas. I pedal down the short strip of granite shop houses on the main drag of Balik Pulau, Penang, wishing I’d decided a little earlier that I wanted breakfast.

I spy her pushing the cart across the street, done for the morning. The cart has half a teal bicycle welded onto the back, but I’ve never seen her ride it. She stops when she sees me and unstacks the yellow plastic trays. She recognizes me—there aren’t any other Western women on bicycles here—so she shows me the tray with the rainbow array of striped rice-flour wedges and squares.

I spot my favorite, kuih talam, a double-decker with green pandan leaf on the bottom and white coconut cream on top. Next to it is a solid purple slab of kuih bengka, caramelized just slightly on one edge, and then the orange, pink, and white layered kuih lapis—the most labor intensive to make of all Malaysia’s Nyonya kuihs.

Kuih is a vague term for any bite-sized snack or dessert, but the kuih most famous here are the steamed rice flour sweets created by the Baba and Nyonyas, an early group of Chinese immigrants. They came here in the 13th and 14th centuries, married local women, and stayed.

“Got boyfriend yet?” she teases me. I shake my head. I don’t feel like explaining Tinder to the old woman, and I have a more pressing dilemma. Should I get the pretty blue pulut tekan, a square of sticky rice dyed with blue pea and held together with coconut milk and salt, or the deep orange ang koo kuih, pressed with Chinese characters and filled with peanuts? They cost only 60 cents, or one ringgit each, so there isn’t much risk in choosing wrong.

“I want one of everything,” I tell her. She laughs and drops each kuih in a little plastic bag, looping it closed with red plastic twine as if I’m going to take them home. Instead I put my backpack on the pavement and tease open the twine with my fingernails. The kuih are already sweating a thin film of oil from the coconut milk.

I taste every kuih she has, starting with ondeh ondeh, a green ball rolled in coconut flakes, that explodes like a gusher between my teeth, coating my tongue with thin molasses-flavored syrup. I save my familiar favorite for last. The green pandan part is smooth and moist, like fragrant herbal butter topped with salty coconut. Rice flour delicacies may have originated in China, but the Baba and Nyonyas clearly improved them with the ingredients they found in their new home.

As I wipe my fingers, she wags her head and grins. The next time, I’ll choose just one or two, but today all the kuih are mine.

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