A Guide to Eating Malaysian Kuih (Local Cakes) for Vegans
Malaysian local cakes - known as "kuih" to locals - are delightful breakfast and teatime favourites. Many of them are dainty and painstakingly prepared for a yummy eating experience.
Malaysia has a vast array of local cakes or desserts coming mainly from the Malay and Nyonya culture. Nyonya culture refers to a special community in Malaysia and Singapore who are known as the Peranakan people. This community has a unique lifestyle established by Chinese people who adopted local customs of the Malay people.
The main differences between western cakes and local kuih are:
- There is usually no leavening agent in the recipe for kuih;
- Butter or margarine is seldom used or used sparingly in making kuih;
- Kuih are usually cooked using the steaming method rather than baking as in western cakes; and
- Coconut milk and palm sugar are favourite ingredients in kuih, something that western cakes seldom use.
However, what may seemingly be a charming mix of flour, sugar and coconut milk, may in fact contain eggs, anchovies or even beef, something unwary diners may not be aware of. Thus it is important for vegans to know what ingredients go into preparing many of the typical Malay kuih so that they know what is safe for them.
The following is a a partial list of famous kuih that are widely available in Malaysia. Of course, each particular state in Malaysia has its own specialities that are not found elsewhere. It is not possible to cover all the states in Malaysia, so we will stick to what is generally available in Kuala Lumpur. We have included pictures of non-vegan kuih, although it is our policy not to do so on this website; the purpose is solely to familiarise diners with the names of these kuih so that they may avoid non-vegan items.
We would like to caution that our labelling of the kuih as usually vegan, maybe safe or usually unsafe for vegans is based on our research on the general practices in terms of kuih making in Malaysia. It is to be expected that there may be differences in terms of ingredients used by different vendors/sellers. As such, it would be always prudent to ask the vendors first whether there are non-vegan ingredients in the kuih. It is advisable that you ask specifically whether there is dairy milk, chicken, beef, anchovies, dried prawns, eggs, etc, as many vendors may not be familiar with what the term veganism means. In fact, even the term vegetarian may not be well-understood!
Here's What You Can Eat Without Jitters
Kuih Lapis - Steamed Layer Cake
A true labour of love! Consisting of multi-coloured layers of kuih, most famously in white and pink layers; this dessert can be found in many markets. Tapioca flour, rice flour, coconut milk and sugar are the main ingredients. The tedious part involves steaming the cake mixture layer after layer.
Putu Piring - Steamed Rice Cake with Coconut and Palm Sugar Filling (Usually Vegan)
A popular steamed rice cake usually sold at night markets, the main ingredients are rice flour, palm sugar, and grated coconut. A mould is used to shape the rice flour into which a sweet filling is added and then the snack is steamed.
These tasty kuih are made from glutinous rice flour, corn flour, palm sugar and grated coconut. The dough is divided into tiny balls which are dropped in boiling water to cook. The cooked desserts are then rolled in grated coconut.
Kuih Kosui - Tapioca Flour and Palm Sugar Steamed Cake
Dark palm sugar produces the lovely brown colour and taste of this steamed kuih. It can be cooked in trays or moulds and then rolled with grated coconut. The main ingredients are palm sugar, tapioca flour and grated coconut.
Kuih Lompang - Mini Tapioca Flour Pancakes
Kuih Lompang is similar to Kuih Kosui in terms of ingredients. The major difference is that Kuih Lompang is steamed in moulds and has a dimple in the middle. Rice flour, tapioca flour and palm sugar are the main ingredients. It is usually available in 2 colours: brown (palm sugar flavour) and green (pandan leaf flavour).
Pulut Inti - Steamed Glutinous Rice with Sweet Coconut Topping
Glutinous rice is steamed with coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves. A delicious topping made of grated coconut cooked with palm sugar is added on top.
Lepat Pisang - Steamed Banana Cake Wrapped in Banana Leaf
Lepat Pisang can be best described as the steamed version of Cenkodok Pisang. Mashed ripe bananas are mixed with all-purpose wheat flour, rice flour, palm sugar and grated coconut. It is a relief to find that eggs are not used in this recipe. Some versions have an additional filling of grated coconut mixed with sugar.
Kuih Talam - Layered Cake
Pandan Version of Kuih Talam
Tapioca Version of Kuih Talam
Kuih Talam is a generic name for cakes that are steamed in trays, derived from its name talam which means tray. This two layered cake is a popular afternoon dessert. There are 2 layers in this kuih, the most popular version is a white and green kuih with the top white layer made up of coconut and the bottom green layer flavoured with pandan juice. The top layer of the cake is made from coconut milk, rice flour and cornstarch. The bottom green layer is made from fresh pandan juice, tapioca flour, rice flour, green peas flour and sugar. Other popular versions include a white and brown layered cake, consisting of coconut and tapioca latyers.
Kuih Kochi/koci - Black Glutinous Rice Snack Wrapped in Banana Leaf
Kuih Kochi is made from black glutinous rice flour, palm sugar and grated coconut as its main ingredients. It is a delightful kuih that is wrapped in banana leaf and has a coconut and palm sugar filling.
Kuih Sagu - Sago Cake
As the name indicates, this cake is made of sago. It has the consistency of a soft jelly, usually has a pink colour, and is coated with grated coconut that definitely makes this kuih stand out.
Tepung Pelita - Rice Flour Boat (Usually Vegan)
This traditional dessert has 2 layers and is steamed in a banana leaf that has been shaped into a boat. The top layer is soft and creamy due to coconut milk mixed with rice flour. The bottom layer is made up of rice flour mixed with pandan juice.
Kuih Rengas - Mung Bean Fritters
A nutritious kuih made from boiled mung beans, Kuih Rengas is one of a kind among the generally carbohydrate rich array of Malay kuih. The main ingredients, apart from mung beans, are grated coconut, sugar and wheat flour. This crispy kuih is delicious and goes well for any occasion.
Kuih Lopes - Steamed Glutinous Rice Cakes with Palm Sugar Dipping
Glutionous rice is steamed with coconut milk and pandan juice to give a rich green cake that is then tossed in grated coconut. This dessert is usually served with a palm sugar dipping.
Kuih Apom Kukus - Steamed Pancake
A deliciously simple kuih made from all-purpose wheat flour, sugar and yeast. The mixture is steamed to form a lovely termite-nest pattern and then tossed in grated coconut.
Kuih Keria - Sweet Potato Doughnuts
A delightful version of doughnut made from sweet potatoes, with the addition of all-purpose wheat flour and a little tapioca flour, this snack is fried and then coated with caramel. It is a delicious option for vegans, although just like doughnuts, it could be quite high in calories due to the frying in oil and then coating with sugar.
Generally Safe, But You May Need to Request for an Ingredients' List
Pisang Goreng - Banana Fritters (Maybe Safe)
Another lovely treat for an afternoon tea, these are sold mainly at roadside stalls in the afternoons. Half-ripe bananas are dipped into a batter consisting of all-purpose wheat flour, rice flour, salt and turmeric. Some sellers may use eggs and margarine in the batter, so to be safe, please ask the chef first what goes into the batter. Another concern is safety issues. Unscrupulous sellers are known to add straws or pieces of plastic in the hot oil in order to give a lasting crispiness to the pisang goreng. So be careful when buying from roadside stalls.
Kuih Bom Bijan - Sesame seed Balls
A snack made out of mainly glutinous rice flour and all-purpose wheat flour, it has a filling made of grated coconut, palm sugar and white sugar. Other types of filling may be used, too, including mung bean and red bean paste. The balls are rolled in sesame seeds and then fried. Although quite rare, eggs may be used in the dough, so it is always necessary to check with the vendors to be safe.
Cempedak Goreng - Jackfruit Fritters
The same concerns as for banana fritters, i.e. possibility of eggs being used in the batter, and health concerns over frying with the addition of straws/plastic. Otherwise, the fritters are generally safe for vegans. It really boils down to eating/ purchasing at stalls that you can trust!
Karipap - Curry Puff
This is an ubiquitious snack for breakfast, teatime, events, functions, and just about any occasion! A snack filled with curried potatoes and meat, usually chicken, mutton or beef, although sardines may also be used. The dough is usually made of all-purpose wheat flour and margarine or shortening. Vegetarian versions may be available in some Indian restaurants, but it may be necessary to inquire what type of margerine has been used. Planta margarine has dairy added to it while Pelangi margarine doesn't state milk on its label. So generally, it would be necessary to check on the ingredients and the type of fat used. Due to these concerns, even the vegetarian version may at times be unsafe for vegans.
Out of Bounds, Keep Away
Kuih Cara Manis - Mini Pancakes with Sugar Filling
This is a traditional kuih that has a pancake texture and taste. It is cooked in baking trays that are placed on the stove. These baking trays are made of copper or tin and have small starfruit or gooseberry-like patterns. The main ingredients are all-purpose wheat flour, coconut milk, sugar and egg. Unfortunately, this delicious much sought-after snack is out-of-bounds for vegans due to the egg content.
Bingka Ubi - Baked Tapioca Cake
Kuih Bingka Ubi Kayu is a Malay teatime treat. It is made of grated tapioca/cassava, coconut milk, sugar, butter and eggs. Unfortunately, the eggs and butter make it unsuitable for vegans.
Cucur Pisang/Cenkodok - Fried Banana Cakes
A delicious snack for a rainy afternoon! Made of all-purpose wheat flour, sugar, ripe bananas and eggs, and fried to a lovely brownish super delicious snack. The typical cucur pisang has eggs and is unsuitable for vegans.
Cucur Badak - Sweet Potato Fritters with Savoury Filling
This is a savoury with simple ingredients such as sweet potatoes, all-purpose wheat flour, and grated coconut. However, what lends it the extra savoury flavour is the dried prawns which are pounded together with grated coconut and chillies for the filling.
Kuih Ketayap - Pandan Crepe with Coconut Filling
Kuih Ketayap (Kuih Dadar) is a kind of rolled crepe with a grated coconut and palm sugar filling. The main ingredients for the crepe are all-purpose wheat flour, pandan juice and eggs. Since eggs are usually used for the batter, vegans should avoid this kuih.
Apam Balik - Pancake with Peanut Filling
Thin Version of Apam Balik
Thick Version of Apam Balik
Apam Balik is a sweet pancake that is folded over and has a sweet peanut filling. This is a popular street food for afternoon tea. There are two versions of this pancake - one that is thick and the other that is thin and crispy. The main ingredients are all-purpose wheat flour, sugar, yeast, eggs and baking powder. Some vendors may add milk while some may use coconut milk instead. The pancake is baked in a brass mould and most vendors would spread a layer of margarine on the cooked pancake (the thicker version).
Seri Muka - Glutinous Rice and Custard Layered Cake
Seri Muka is a dainty sweet cake made of 2 layers. A green coloured custard layer forms the top while a glutinous rice layer is at the bottom. The main ingredients for the lower layer are glutinous rice, coconut milk, sugar and pandan leaves. The top custard layer is made up of all-purpose wheat flour, coconut milk, sugar, cornstarch and eggs.
Pulut Seri Kaya - Glutinous Rice and Palm Sugar Layered Cake (Usually Unsafe)
This cake is similar to Seri Muka and consists of 2 layers. The bottom layer is made of glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk. The top layer usually has a brown colour due to the addition of brown sugar or palm sugar. This cake also uses eggs as an ingredient in the top layer.
Pulut Panggang - Grilled Glutinous Rice Wrapped in Banana Leaf
This kuih is made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan flavour. It has a filling made of grated coconut, onion, ginger, garlic, lemon grass and chillies. The main problem is that dried prawns/shrimp and belacan may be added by most vendors. The kuih is wrapped in banana leaves before grilling.
Kuih Cara Berlauk - Savoury Bites (Usually Unsafe)
Kuih cara berlauk is a mini pancake cooked in moulds over a stove. It's a savoury snack that is available at hawker stalls for breakfast or tea. The pancake batter is made of all-purpose wheat flour, eggs and coconut milk. There is a savoury filling which usually has minced beef or chicken.
Kuih Gula Bakar - Caramel Cake
This is a dark-brown coloured cake with a lovely termite nest-like texture. The main ingredients are sugar, margarine, eggs, condensed milk and all-purpose wheat flour.
Kuih Bakar Kemboja - Baked Pandan Cake
This is a rich and dense cake that is baked in a flower-shaped mould or a rectangular pan and has a caramelised crust. The main ingredients are all-purpose flour, eggs, sugar, sesame seeds, coconut milk and pandan flavour.
Kuih Puteri Ayu - Steamed Dainty Cakes
Kuih Puteri Ayu literally means beautiful Princess! This is a really dainty cake with lots of tedious work to pour the batter into tiny moulds for steaming. The main ingredients are wheat flour, tapioca flour, sugar and eggs.
To Sum Up
There are plenty of vegan options when it comes to eating kuih. However, vegans need to keep in mind the perils of assuming all kuih are safe when they may contain non-vegan ingredients.
This brings us to the issue of high costs of being a vegan. As far as local cakes are concerned, these are cheap, really cheap! At the local farmers' markets, known as Pasar Tani, these kuih are being sold at RM0.40 to RM0.50 a piece.
Here's a link to a list and schedule of farmers' markets in Malaysia: Pasar Tani Operating table 2016. Make a point to visit some of them to see the fare they have to offer.
And don't forget to be armed with The Guide we have given, so that you know what to look for!
A typical Pasar Tani/ Farmer's Market in Malaysia
Recipe Videos Coming Soon
We will be releasing vegan recipe videos for many of the kuihs listed above as we believe that the best kuih are still the ones you prepare in your kitchen. So be sure to suscribe to our Youtube Channel, follow us on Instagram or like us on Facebook to be the first to know when the recipes are out! Recipe video for Ondeh Ondeh is already available above.
All opinions, conclusions and other information in this article are intended as guidelines only. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided, we will not be responsible for any error, loss or damage arising from this article.