Heading out of Melaka, we stop for a big bag of one of our favorite palm sugar vehicles, kuih keria. As Dave waits in the car I order two cups of kelapa muda (young coconut juice) and, in anticipation of one and a half hours of joyful on-the-road piggery, 20 of the tasty palm sugar-coated sweet potato donuts to go.
Horrors! They won't be available till 2:30. It's 1:30 now and we need to get back in KL. Dejectedly sipping a kelapa muda, I walk back to the car and deliver the news. Dave is devastated. We've both been looking forward to this all weekend.
Ten minutes up the road Dave makes a sudden U-turn. Schedule be
damned - we're going back to wait it out. And are we ever glad we did.
There is nothing, simply nothing in this world, like a freshly made kuih keria.
The donuts are made on-site in a tin-roofed, open-aired 'workshop' just
behind the stall. There we find the owner of the operation, an intense,
wiry man, overseeing two massive wood-fired woks, one filled with
bubbling oil and dozens of bobbing donuts, and the other with reducing
gula Melaka syrup.
While he's waiting for the first batch of kuih to finish frying he helps his daughter churn out more. They're both masterful donut makers, using only their hands to transform lumps of sweet potato dough into plump, even rings in seconds.
When the donuts have browned to the shade of cinnamon he scoops them from the oil and transfers them to a basket to drain and cool. The next batch goes into the oil.
By now we're in a cloud of aromas simultaneously wonderous and maddening. The smell of freshly fried dough intermingles with the sweet smokiness of gula Melaka, and it's nearly unbearable. Drop the donuts in the gula already! we want to scream.
But no. He returns to his lump of sweet potato dough and commences more donut shaping. Every so often he walks over to the pan of gula syrup, gives it a stir, lift the spatula high to gage its thickness, and then lightly touches one of the crisped donuts to test its temperature. We watch. And wait.
Finally it's time to add the donuts to the sugar. He puts them all in at once and begins turning the rings in the syrup, working quickly to coat them all before the sugar hardens. We now understand why he waited so long to add the kuih to the sugar - they must be cool enough to bring down the temperature of the gula so that it solidifies and clings.
Watching this process makes us appreciate kuih keria even more. It's a real art and timing is everything.
As soon as the donuts are coated the master and his daughter lift the pan from the fire
and then crouch beside it, tonging the donuts out to a platter one-by-one. Again, time is of the essence -the kuih must be pulled out of the pan quickly so they don't stick, either to it or to each other.
At long last the first batch of kuih keria is ready for streetside sale. We up our order from 20 to 25; as soon as our bag's been filled cars begin stopping in front of the stall, their occupants ordering kuih keria by the dozens. When we get to our car we each eat 3 right off (they're too hot to eat directly out of the bag, but a few seconds in front of an air-con vent takes care of that) and continue gobbling at regular intervals all the way back to KL.
While Malaysia is home to many divine deep-fried snacks, the majority become decreasingly delicious the longer they're out of the fryer. Kuih keria miraculously stand the test of time. To justify our piggery we engage in a bit of scientific observation.
From my notes:
2:35 Fresh, almost prohibitively hot. Inside soft and tender, almost melting and creamy. Nice flavor, can almost taste sweet potato. Intense gula flavor, with smokiness from wood fire and sugar. Outside firm but not at all crisp.
3:05 Inside still warm but not hot. Still very soft. Outside a bit firm, almost crackly, but gula clinging well.
3:50 Completely cooled. Inside firmer, chewy, more cakey. Creaminess almost gone but as flavor of dough has receded gula stronger, more smoky, with that lightly bitter and almost salty aftertaste that's the mark of a high quality palm sugar.
Kuih Keria Antarabangsa, Jalan Tengkera (follow Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock till it turns into Jalan Tengkera - as if you're heading to the old trunk road to Kuala Lumpur - the stall is on your right), Melaka. 130-730pm, closed Friday. Also selling goreng pisang (fried bananas), kuih bidaran (sesame seed-coated deep-fried balls filled with sweet mashed mung bean), and deep-fried ubi balls.