Malaysian Desserts

by Audrey Lim, Dec 9, 2004 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur
A bowl of cendol

A bowl of cendol

A bowl of cendol

Malaysians are known for many things around the world, but you have to agree that food is right on top of the food-chain, pardon the pun. We are well-known for the diverse bounty of cuisines under the proverbial roof, which is a fact. I have however noticed the lack of attention on the topic of desserts. Sure, food encapsulates it, but I feel that we should indulge our sugar-coated tooth once in a while.

Through the years of frequenting the local spectrum of dessert establishments, I have noticed one very interesting habit. Wherever I go, I am surrounded by throngs of people from different races. I truly believe that Malaysians are being subconsciously called to go forth and try every imaginable dessert out there, honest! It's no wonder that Malaysia is a melting pot of inventions for desserts. While there are distinct flavors for each ethnic group, the recipes has been tweaked and reworked to a point that we can never know for certain who actually created it, which is fine as no one is counting; we just love the taste.

We will attempt to trace some of the desserts mention to the parent race but honestly, we can never be too sure as everyone (all races) makes it, sells it and eats it. The goal of this article is to shed light into the multitude of desserts available in Malaysia and hopefully with some well place words, compel anyone to give the desserts a go.

Dessert Name: "Pisang Goreng" (Literal translation, Fried Banana; Proper Term, Banana Fritters)
Typically made by: Malays
Taste: Sweet, savory and fried
Method: Banana coated with flour and fried to a crispy golden brown
Price range: RM$0.30 - RM$0.60 for each
Common Business Times: From lunch to tea time
Further Info: Mostly sold at roadsides in busy townships, these stalls are easily identified with a huge frying wok that is filled with hot cooking oil. While the "Pisang Goreng" is the favorite, other varieties of fried goodies are available. Commonly found are "keropok" (fish/prawn crackers), curry puff, yam/tapioca and jackfruit. Just make sure you drink lots of water to douse that potential sore throat.

Dessert Name: "Cendol" (Name of the green strands that make up the soup/drink)
Typically made by: Indians
Taste: Sweet and cold
Method: Consist of shaved ice, liberally doused with "Gula Melaka" (brown colored palm syrup) and "cendol" (little green strands of dough made from a mixture of rice and tapioca flour) in coconut milk
Price range: RM$1.00 - RM$2.00 for a bowl
Common Business Times: From brunch to the late afternoon
Further Info: If you stumble upon a van on the roadside with plenty of people queuing up, chances are that you have found them. Purists like me still prefer "Cendol" with the basic ingredients. However through the years additions like kidney beans, sweet corn and "Cincau" (a Chinese herbal jelly) have broaden the appeal of this dessert further. There is one odd addition that I personally enjoy, however not many people share my eccentricity. I occasionally request for some glutinous rice to be added to the dessert. Try it or not, it's up to you, but I recommend the quest. These days, many reputable hotels in Malaysia have this on their menu for the curious traveler as well. Of course the price is higher and the additional ingredients are more luxurious than those found at the roadside stall.

Dessert Name: "Tong Sui" (Direct Translation, Sugar Water)
Typically made by: Chinese
Taste: Sweet, and is served either hot or cold
Method: A soup-based dessert with a choice of assorted ingredients (e.g. peanut, red bean, wheat, sago, gingko, barley, etc) boiled with sugar water.
Price range: RM$1.50 - RM$5.50 for each
Common Business Times: Day and night
Further Info: There are many ways of combining the ingredients to make up this dessert. The more popular ones are the red bean, barley, peanut and sweet potato soup. Typically found in Chinese dessert shops and the occasional Chinese coffee shops, it can be quite daunting for the uninitiated as the choices are almost limitless. This is because different dialects of Chinese make the same dessert with different ingredients. For example, there is a variant of the red bean soup that adds dried mandarin orange peel to the soup for a slightly tangy taste. I actually like it both ways, each with its own distinctive complement to the primary ingredient. Sometimes, it can be so good that one bowl is just not enough, so be prepared to order seconds.

Dessert Name: "Nyonya Kuih" ('Nyonya' Cake)
Typically made by: Chinese & Malays
Taste: Sweet and savory
Method: Asian style cake with varied ingredients
Price range: RM$0.60 - RM$2.50 for each
Common Business Times: Day and night
Further Info: It is very hard to explain this particular dessert without first having to give a tiny history lesson for the derivative word "Nyonya". Intermarriages amongst Chinese settlers and local Malays have given birth to a whole new culture called "Baba-Nyonya" or "Peranakan". "Baba" is for the men and "Nyonya", for the women. "Nyonyas" are very famous for their cooking; so naturally the desserts are great as well. There are many varieties of "Nyonya Kuih" to choose from. A popular one is called "Ang Koo" which consists of a nut paste wrapped in a red turtle shell-shaped skin. The name itself literally means red turtle. There is also "Onde Onde" which is melted "Gula Melaka" wrapped in a fluffy green skin coated with coconut grating. Once you bite into it, the sweet sugary liquid fills your mouth - absolute heaven! There are many more varieties of "Kuih" in which you will just have to try it to actually appreciate the multi-layered taste it offers. You can find them at your neighborhood roadside stalls to restaurants and even famous hotels. A Malaysian favorite anytime of the day!

Dessert Name: "Nin Gao" (New Year's Cake)
Typically made by: Chinese
Taste: Sweet, chewy and sticky
Method: Pan-fried, deep-fried and steamed
Price range: RM$0.50 a piece or RM$5.00 a block
Common Business Times: During Chinese New Year
Further Info: It is commonly eaten during the Chinese New Year period, but in the recent years it has been sold throughout the year at selected places. Mostly sold by Chinese that sells an assortment of deep-fried desserts, yet it is not easy to find this delicacy everywhere. It is also sold in a block form and is normally given as gifts to family and friends during the festive month. There are a number of methods that this dessert can be eaten. One is egg-dipped and pan-fried to a crisp. Then there is the deep-fried version that sandwiches the "Nin Gao" with a slice of yam and tapioca on each side, and once you bite into it, you will experience the gooey sweet texture of the "Nin Gao" playfully toying with your taste buds. Lastly, the homemade way that my family enjoys is to steam it. In its original form it is a solid block, careful you do not drop in on your toe. Once steamed, it will melt to a gooey sticky state. It can be somewhat messy but worth the effort once you have a taste of it. You can either eat it just like that or twist it around with a fork and roll it over grated coconut.

Dessert Name: "Tau Foo Fah" (Bean Curd Jelly)
Typically made by: Chinese
Taste: Sweet, and eaten either hot or cold
Method: A curdled form of soy bean douse in either syrup or "Gula Melaka"
Price range: RM$1.50 - RM$2.00 a bowl
Common Business Times: Day and night
Further Info: The soft milky texture is a healthy dessert any time of the day. I personally enjoy it with "Gula Melaka". You will find mini-vans with the word "Tau Foo Fah" or "Soya Bean Drink" emblazoned on them, you can't miss it. As you have noticed, both items are normally sold in tandem. There are many forms of eating this delectable dessert. It is always sold in hot form but it can be eaten in cold form. Just stick it in the fridge for a couple of hour or so and let the texture harden a tad bit but gives a totally different experience to the taste. Sometimes it is also fun to add some soy bean milk to it to give it an even milkier feel.

Dessert Name: Moon Cake
Typically made by: Chinese
Taste: Sweet
Method: A layer of cake filled with assorted paste and duck egg yolk
Price range: RM$8.00 - RM$12.00 a piece
Common Business Times: During the Chinese mid-Autumn Festival
Further Info: The moon cake has also gone through a huge evolution in Malaysia. The classic moon cake is shaped like a moon and is filled with lotus paste with duck egg yolk which resembles somewhat like a moon as well. These days, you can find moon cakes with all kinds of different shapes and sizes as well as skins and fillings. Unfortunately, this particular dessert is only sold from August until the day of the festival, which is in the early week of September. You will be hard-pressed to find it at any other time of the year. Famous ice-cream chain, Häagen-Dazs, has also localized the moon cake by making replicas of it using ice-cream. The egg yolk on the inside even resembles the real thing, except that it is made entirely of ice-cream. Of course, the pricing is also much higher.

Dessert Name: "Air Batu Campur" a.k.a. ABC (Literally means mixed ice)
Typically made by: Chinese and Malays
Taste: Sweet, milky and cold
Method: An assortment of delights buried in a cone of shaved ice, douse in red and brown syrup and sometimes evaporated milk Price range: RM$1.50 - RM$2.50 for each
Common Business Times: Day and night
Further Info: Also popularly known as "Ais Kacang" (literally translated as ice nuts, or ice shavings with peanuts) to many, it is a favorite not only in Malaysia but throughout Asia. Other countries have different names for it but they are almost the same. This particular delight is very refreshing especially for places with high temperatures and humidity. There are many variants of ABC for sure, so depending on where you order it, it might have different ingredients. The more popular ones are "cendol", jelly, "cincau", palm seed kernel, red beans, droplets of starch in vibrant colors, and the must-have peanuts. I always request mine with an extra sprinkle of peanuts; it is not called "Ais Kacang" for nothing. You can get this anywhere from a roadside stall to a 5-star hotel.

Basically, what I have done is highlight the better known desserts of Malaysia. There is a myriad selection of dessert that can only be told in a few novels. These are hand-picked crème de la crème of the typical desserts Malaysians consume on a daily to weekly basis. If for some reason you find it too much of a chore to scour the country for desserts, then perhaps a visit to the local malls could help. In the recent years, many local dessert stalls have popped up in malls. A word of caution though, they are far more expensive and the taste could be questionable at times, although my experience with most have been pleasant.