What Is a Kuih?

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  • Written By: Eugene P.
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 03 June 2020
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Kuih is a generic term used in Malaysia, China and other areas of Southeast Asia to denote small confections that are eaten during celebrations, special events or just during the course of a normal day. Most kuih that are produced are sweet, although there are some that are savory and include meat or stock in the recipes. They often are brightly colored with natural ingredients or food coloring and formed into distinctive shapes with molds. One common thread that helps to define kuih is the use of glutinous flour, tapioca flour and sugar along with flavorings such as pandan or coconut. The candies are usually cooked by steaming, sometimes being steamed several times to create layered effects, although there are recipes that require baking or frying the dough.

The basis for many forms of kuih is a mixture of water, flour and sugar. Individual recipes tend to use more specific types of each of the basic ingredients. The water, for example, can be replaced with green pandan juice, which has a nutty flavor and colors the dough. The liquid also can be coconut milk, cow’s milk or simple syrup.

The flour used in kuih also can be varied. Rice flour is very common and often is mixed with another type of flour, depending on the type of treat being made. Glutinous rice flour, white flour and tapioca flour are all used, as well, both on their own and mixed together. On some occasions, flour is not used at all and glutinous rice is used to bind the ingredients together when being steamed.

For sweet kuih, a sweetener is usually included aside from any additional flavorings. White granulated sugar can be used, or it can be turned into simple syrup to be drizzled on top; brown sugar, malt sugar and cane sugar also are common. The amount of sweetness in each bite is less than would be expected of a similar candy in Western countries such as the United States.

Savory kuih can use slightly different ingredients than the sweet type, although most aspects of preparation are the same, including the use of molds and food coloring. These small snacks can include a ground meat filling such as chicken, beef or pork. The flour used can be made from mung beans or lentils in addition to rice flour, and the liquid can be flavored stock.

There are dozens of different shapes into which the treats can be formed. Molds can be used to make them look like small fruits or to embed designs in the surface. They can be made like cookies with a filling between two pieces of colored dough. Complex, multicolored layered designs are made by steaming each layer as it is added. Despite the difference in taste and texture, a display of kuih usually looks like a colorful plate of whimsical cakes and candies.


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