The first time you take a peek at the kueh behind glass at Raya in Melbourne, you can’t help but feel giddy. The vibrant colours, the bouncy texture and the different shapes give the impression that you’re in a candy store.
But these little bites are not always sweet; they can be savoury, or a mix of both. And they’re not only a dessert; they can be eaten at any time, on a normal day or for special occasions.
Most often, they’re made from glutinous rice, tapioca, rice flour, coconut, pandan, palm sugar and mung bean. “They can be baked or fried, but mainly they are steamed. Some are wrapped in a banana leaf. They have an array of tastes,” says baker and Raya’s owner Raymond Tan.
You’ll find kueh (also spelled kuih and kue) in several Southeast Asian countries, but they’re especially popular in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei.
Tan hails from the Malaysian town of Klang and his parents are from Penang. “We went to Penang a lot, where there is a Nyonya culture in the food, so the kueh we’re making at Raya are all based on my memories of the texture and how they tasted,” he explains. “In Malaysia, you can find them in school canteens. People buy big platters to bring to wedding parties. People eat them for the 100-day celebration for babies. Then, for funerals, you have different ones. Every kueh has a story.”
From accounting to cakes and kueh
When you taste Tan’s kueh, it’s hard to believe that they weren’t initially supposed to be on the menu at Raya, his bakeshop and cafe, which opened in June in Melbourne’s CBD.
The ex-accounting student is a self-taught baker, whose cakes and cake-popsicles earned him legions of fans and invitations to teach cake-making all around the world.
"In Malaysia, you can find them in school canteens. People buy big platters to bring to wedding parties. People eat them for the 100-day celebration for babies. Then, for funerals, you have different ones. Every kueh has a story.”
He started making kueh at the beginning of the pandemic to keep himself entertained before people requested to buy them. “I would make about 1000 kueh each week from my apartment,” he says. “It was the missing piece of the puzzle for the shop. I wanted to showcase my Southeast Asian and Malaysian background, and through cake, there’s only so much you can do.” So when Raya finally opened, cakes, cookies and coffee were on the menu alongside kueh.
At Raya, the selection of kueh rotates each week. Highlights include kueh angku (red sweet potato and rice flour dough filled with mung bean or peanut), lapis sago kueh (nine colourful layers of steamed rice flour, tapioca and coconut milk) and ondeh ondeh (pandan-infused balls filled with liquid palm sugar and rolled in coconut).
A kueh you can make at home
With several hundreds of types of kueh existing across Southeast Asia, there’s plenty to keep Tan inspired. For Lunar New Year, he’s thinking of making kueh sago ros.
“It’s really simple to make, that’s the kueh we’d have in the school canteen. It’s a soft tapioca kueh. In Malaysia, we have this pink rose-flavoured syrup that makes the kueh pink,” explains Tan. Tapioca is soaked with rose syrup and pandan, then steamed, left to set, rolled into desiccated coconut and cut into bite-size pieces.
“It’s a Malay type of kueh. In Malaysia, different cultures make different kueh: Malay, Indian, Chinese. When it comes together, we just call it kueh. This one is more Malay, we eat it during Raya season, Ramadan,” he adds.
Get one of each
When you visit Raya, it's a good idea to get one of each kueh, which come individually or in boxes. You’ll also want to get a piece of cake, like the crowd-pleasing pandan chiffon cake or the spinach cake (trust us on this one).
If you want to learn more about the kueh on offer, don’t hesitate to ask the staff, who are Tan’s friends and family. “When we first opened, people didn’t know much about the flavours. They’d ask ‘how did the cake get so green? What are kueh?’ We’re slowly educating people about our food,” says Tan. "In the city, no one else makes kueh. We’re very proud.”
Kueh sago ros (rose sago steamed cake)
Makes one 20cm square tray (20 kueh pieces)
This is a popular type of Malay kueh, commonly sold and eaten all over Malaysia and Singapore. This rose version usually calls for bandung syrup (a common sweet rose syrup), which is why the kueh is usually pink in colour. In this recipe, we will be using rosewater as a substitute and a few drops of pink colouring to mimic the vibrant shade.
- 150 g sago or tapioca pearls
- 125 g caster sugar
- 1½ tbsp rosewater
- ½ tsp pink gel food colour (optional)
- 550 ml water
- 100 g desiccated coconut
- 10 g pandan leaves (knotted)
- ⅓ tsp salt
- Banana leaves
1. Rinse sago pearls with cold water and set aside.
2: Add water, sugar, rosewater and food colouring (if using) to a medium-sized pot and bring to the boil.
3. Add sago pearls to the pot and cook until the pearls are half translucent.
4. Pour sago mixture in a banana leaf-lined tray and steam over medium heat for 30 minutes in a bain-marie on the stovetop (or in the oven), until the sago pearls are fully cooked and translucent.
5. Once the sago pearls are cooked through, wrap the top of the tray with cling film and set aside in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
6. Meanwhile steam desiccated coconut, knotted pandan leaves and salt for 10 minutes in a bain-marie on the stovetop (or in the oven).
7. Remove sago cake from the tray, cut into bite-sized pieces and roll sago pieces into the salted desiccated coconut mixture.
8. Sago cake is best eaten on the day it's made – otherwise the sago will slightly harden in the next day or two
Note: You can also make a pandan version by replacing water with pandan juice: just blend 500 ml water and 105 g pandan leaves.
Kuih keria are a classic Malaysian sweet potato doughnut served as a popular street snack. Diana Chan has turned them into a churro version, sprinkled with floral Sichuan sugar.