I was slow to discover the charms of kaya. But now that I have there's no turning back.
Who can blame me for initially turning my nose up at this 'jam' of coconut milk, eggs, and white sugar? My first taste of the concoction was from a can plucked off a dusty shelf in an Asian market in California. Inside, I found not a trace of coconut flavor - just sweet, thick, exceptionally sticky blech. It took fourteen years for me to learn that 'real' kaya has as much in common with the canned stuff as a Maggi chicken cube dissolved in water does with long-simmered homemade chicken broth.
Kaya means 'wealthy' or 'rich' in Malaysian, and those words accurately sum up its attractions. Lushly coconuty, extravagantly eggy, and deeply caramely, kaya tastes something like a moist macaroon, a well-executed flan, and mom's butterscotch pudding all rolled into one.
Its natural partner is bread, and the pair is a standard Malaysian and Singaporean kopitiam menu item. (Nothing puts a kopi-stoked caffeine high into overdrive like an order of kaya toast.)
Some prefer their dough sliced from a loaf, while for others only a bun will do. I can't play favorites. Less than a week after swooning over butter and kaya-slathered sweet, puffy, soft-as-a-baby's-bottom xiao mianbao (little buns) in Kuala Terengganu (above) I was swearing eternal allegiance to the larger, wheatier, and altogether more substantial puffs on offer at Kuantan's Kememan coffee shop (below).
Then with one bite of Village Park's kaya toast all thoughts of buns were wiped from my mind. This restaurant's Singaporean owner decrees that plain white loaf be sliced super thin, evenly toasted on both sides, and then sliced again. The "raw" sides are stuck back together with the barest slick of butter and kaya mortar. The result is an ethereally light but saporific kaya toast that, after the initial crunch, practically melts in the mouth.
Beyond the loaf-versus-bun debate, there are a three requirements for a memorable kaya toast. Bread or bun should be white - not sourdough, not whole-grain nuts 'n stuff, not chewy artisanal provincial French doorstop bread. I'm not a white bread fan in general, but it's really the best kaya base.
If the dough product is to be toasted (kaya is also eaten with steamed bread) it should be over charcoal (or at least not in a toaster - use your oven's broiler instead; all the better if the oven is powered by gas). And the medium of lubrication should be butter, not margarine (Kememan comes out a loser on this point). Kaya and butter may be served on the side, but if an order arrives pre-spread the layers should be thin, ant there should be re-enforcements on the plate.
Readers who have been living a kaya-less existence (if you've tried it but don't like it - huh? - this won't apply to you) and can't purchase the good stuff (ie. not canned, not jarred, not mass-produced) should consider making their own. I can think of a few uses, other than as a bread spread, for this delicacy: as filling for a vanilla or chocolate sponge roll, as a topping for ice cream (a bit beyond the pale, perhaps), used instead of frosting on a rich chocolate cake (or in addition to frosting, between cake layers).
This recipe looks quite good (it's from the author's grandmother). It's not clear as to the amount of coconut milk to be used, so I'll clarify. Based on a survey of five different recipes, 600 ml of coconut milk, 10 eggs (the bigger the yolk the better), and 400-500 grams of sugar (depending on how sweet you want your kaya) seem to be the standard quantities.
A few things to keep in mind:
- canned coconut milk will, unfortunately, produce an inferior product. But making your own isn't that hard (or time consuming, if you use dessicated coconut). From freshly grated coconut: place 2 cups coconut into a blender and add 1 1/2 cups very hot water. Blend for a few seconds. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Pour the coconut mixture into the sieve, gather up the corners of the cloth, and squeeze the liquid out of the coconut. From unsweetened, dessicated coconut milk: bring 2 1/2 cups water and 2 cups coconut to a simmer in a pan. Pour into a blender and proceed as for fresh coconut. Both methods should produce about 350 ml/12 ounces of thick coconut milk.
- if you use a double boiler constant stirring throughout the entire process is unnecessary, unless you desire an absolutely smooth kaya (for those, like me, who like a bit of texture, small lumps are not a problem). Some recipes require the kaya to be cooked over a double boiler for as long as 4 or 5 hours. Have a look at the photo above, see how your product compares in terms of consistency, and continue to cook if necessary.
- the recipe can be halved.
Refer to my Malaysian coffee post for addresses of the kaya toast spots mentioned above.