One of the more vivid childhood memories I have is of my thirteen-year-old self in front of a pot of brown goo, stirring, stirring, stirring, praying and wishing for it to thicken into the promised custard heaven so that my tongue could take a dip in its pool of sweet delight. I stirred for more than an hour, never once taking my eyes off the aromatic concoction of freshly squeezed coconut milk, sugar, eggs and pandan leaves in a bowl atop a pot of gently simmering water.
I was making kaya. Why I was making kaya on that day, at that age, is not something I remember very well, but I know I owe it to a lady a few doors down from our flat, who probably saw it fit to impart this labor-intensive, time-consuming recipe to a latchkey kid with nothing better to do after school than to ride her bike up and down the flat corridors, screaming like a certain tree-swinging primate the whole time.
I believe she was standing right there as I cooked, watching from the kitchen window, instructing and cheering, like a personal coach in a marathon. I didn’t know what I was getting into until I was at the halfway mark, elbow deep in a sticky slurry that began to reward every move I made in the bowl, thickening into a smooth paste as I stirred. Ah, the finish line. (Even when I make kaya today, I leap in joy a little when the liquid mixture begins its transformation to goo.)
So that’s how I learned to make kaya. The old-fashioned way. No thickener. No cornstarch. No shortcut.
A kopitiam staple in Malaysia, kaya is an essential ingredient in roti kahwin (which literally translates to “married bread”), two pieces of bread sandwiching a generous spread of kaya and thick slabs of butter. Add to that a couple of half-boiled eggs seasoned with soy sauce and ground white pepper plus a cup of coffee or milk tea (or Milo) and we have the quintessential Malaysian breakfast.
Food ties us to our heritage, and I learned the power of homesickness when I woke up one morning pining for the familiar flavors of kaya toast dipped in runny egg yolk. In my attempt to recreate a taste from home, I found myself in front of a pot of brown goo again, stirring, stirring, stirring…
Kaya (Coconut Egg Jam)
Kaya is traditionally made using the double boil method, and a degree of patience is required for the long cooking process. The ingredients, especially coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan leaves, can be found at Asian supermarkets. Be sure to use coconut milk meant for cooking, usually available in a can, and not the beverage kind, and preferably without chemical preservatives and thickening agents.
Palm sugar gives kaya its distinct caramel flavor and color, but it can be substituted with brown sugar. Pandan is commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking as a flavoring in both sweet and savory dishes. Think of it as Asian vanilla. Pandan leaves can be located at the refrigerated or frozen section. Excluding it does not affect the texture of kaya but the flavor will not be as fragrant. Enjoy kaya as you would any jam - on toast, waffles, pancakes and crackers.
1 cup coconut milk
5 tablespoons palm sugar
4 tablespoons cane sugar
3 pandan (screwpine) leaves
4 large eggs
Set up a double boiler. Bring water to a boil and turn it down to medium-low heat. Melt sugar in coconut milk in the double boiler. Make sure the bottom of the top pot is not in contact with the water in the bottom pot. The water should be at a very gentle simmer.
Cut root end of pandan leaves and clean under running water. Bruise leaves slightly to help release its flavor, then tie them into a knot and add to mixture. When sugar has melted, which should happen very quickly, remove the pot of mixture from heat and let cool for a few minutes.
Whisk eggs well, then strain into mixture and carefully stir until combined. Place the pot of mixture back in the double boiler on medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant silicone spatula, for about 60 to 70 minutes. Use the spatula to scrape the side and bottom of the pot to ensure even cooking. The mixture will gradually thicken, noticeably so after 40 to 45 minutes.
If at any time lumps start to appear, remove mixture from heat immediately and stir or whisk until smooth. This happens when the mixture is overheated, resulting in the eggs curdling, so reduce heat before continuing to cook. Alternate between stirring and whisking to reduce lumps. If necessary, blend mixture with an immersion blender (without pandan leaves).
Once the mixture reaches a spreadable custard-like consistency, remove from heat. It will continue to thicken as it cools. Remove pandan leaves. Cool completely before transferring to a jar and storing in refrigerator. Makes about 1 cup of kaya.
Now that you've made kaya, you may want to check out the recipe for Pandan Coconut Cake with Kaya.