Kaya toast – charcoal-grilled bread with coconut jam and a slap of cold butter – is as quintessentially Singaporean as mega-watt kopi (coffee), and it’s hard not to enjoy one without the other. You know you’ve gone full local when you crave this classic combination for breakfast or an afternoon snack, and become hopelessly devoted to a coffee house that serves your toast just the way you like it: either thick and fluffy or shatteringly crisp, with more salted butter than you dare.
Legend has it kaya is the creation of Hainanese galley hands who worked on British ships in Singapore. They used coconut, eggs and pandan leaves as a substitute when ingredients for fruit jam weren’t available, and the custard-like kaya was such a hit that it eventually made its way to the Hainanese-run kopitiams (coffee houses).
Locals take their kaya seriously, with endless blog posts debating who’s got the best in town. What everyone does agree on is the unbeatable ‘super crispy’ kaya toast at Tong Ah Eating House, one of Singapore’s longest-running coffee houses, on 35 Keong Saik Rd. Here, the bread is toasted three times, the blackened parts expertly scraped off with the lid of an evaporated milk tin so that your kaya comes with an over-the-top crunch.
Kaya lovers also know to head to the top floor of Amoy Street Food Centre, where the Ah Seng (Hai Nam) Coffee stall serves kaya French toast (also known as the ‘Bonjour Singapura’). Expect creamy, salty, kaya sandwiched between your eggy toast, plus a dollop on the side for dipping.
Or head over to 204 East Coast Rd, where you’ll find one of the few remaining old-school coffee houses, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery. Be prepared to share your table because there’s a perpetual crowd for the freshly baked buns, charcoal-toasted for that perfect balance of crunch and cloud-like fluffiness. The kaya here is subtle, with a serious slab of butter on top, which always improves the jam, I say.
While you’re on Singapore’s East Coast, it’s also worth making the pilgrimage to One Kind House on 136B Lor J Telok Kurau – a cafe and supper club that former advertising guru Calvin Soh has launched at his family home in the hope of cultivating a 21st-century kampong, or village, vibe. Coffee, and, if it’s your lucky day, homemade kaya, is served to neighbours and a growing tribe that travels across town to chill out at the family dining table, gaze at the kitchen garden and enjoy a good chat. The kaya, made by Mommy Soh, uses duck eggs for a rich, creamy feel, and it’s getting quite the reputation. One fellow customer has even brought her toast to ensure she gets her fix.
In a particularly neighbourly move, Calvin indulges me with an impromptu lesson. Of course, there’s no strict recipe – he improvises, just as his grandmother did. The ingredients are incredibly simple: egg yolks, sugar, salt and coconut milk. The only secret, he says, is that the latter must be fresh – never from a tin. He isn’t in the mood for pandan – which gives kaya its green hue – but lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves from the garden. Traditionally, you’d stir the egg mixture over a bain-marie for three hours, but because this is the 21st century, Calvin uses a Thermomix.
If you can’t get your hands on the homemade stuff, the next best thing is the not-too-eggy Nonya pandan kaya from iconic Peranakan eatery Kim Choo Kueh Chang, on 111 East Coast Road. Or, go mod with the artisanal kaya by Ujong Gourmet, which plays with saffron, butterfly pea and salted coconut nectar in its three offerings. The creators suggest partnering these jams with cheese – call me a traditionalist, but I’m yet to make that leap.
Keen to take your modern kaya experience one step further? In a maverick move, Bitters & Love bar, on 118 Telok Ayer St, serves up a kaya cocktail: a concoction of spiced rum, honey and coconut jam that’s now its most popular drink. The twist? Perched on your cocktail is a piece of traditional kaya toast.
Photographs by Selina Altomonte.
Jams don’t always have to end up spread on toast. They are also a simple way to create interesting ice-cream flavours. This recipe uses jam made from the Australian native fruit Gubinge, also known as Kakadu plum.
If every season had a matching jam, then autumn’s would be this one. Mix the pulp of ripe persimmons, star anise, cinnamon, brown sugar (and lemon to thicken) and voila: an exotic jam so tasty it will become a seasonal tradition in your house too.