What is Kaya? A Heritage Food from Malaysia's Colonial History
While Malaysia and Singapore have both succumbed to the mall-ification endemic throughout Southeast Asia, pockets of both countries have resisted - and it is to our benefit that this resistance continues, for without it, we would be deprived of kopitiam staples like roti kaya.
Roti kaya is as traditional a breakfast as you can get in urban Malaysia and Singapore: a deceptively simple dish of toasted bread, margarine, and kaya spread that goes so very well with the strong Liberica coffee beloved of kopitiam regulars. (Read about Singapore kopitiam.)
The kaya spread comes to us from the Peranakan, or the blended Malay-Chinese community of centuries past, whose nyonyas (a common feminine endearment for Peranakans) whipped up kaya from coconut cream, eggs, and sugar. (Read more: recipe for kaya coconut jam.) Kaya in the palm-sugar town of Melaka was colored brown, thanks to the surplus of palm sugar in the mix; other parts of Malaysia specialized in green kaya, which derives its color from... the use of the pandan (screwpine) leaf.
"Making a good kaya is no easy task - it takes a long, long time," Malaysian food tour expert Pauline Lee explains to us, as we ponder Lai Foong Kopitiam's menu. "[It has high] thickness, consistency, the good ones made by a nyonya. [Here's how to tell a] good kaya - you put a spoon in it, it doesn't move." (Read about Pauline Lee's food walking tour of Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.)
Which may explain why genuine kaya seems to be harder and harder to find if you're looking for it in Singapore and Malaysia: it's not just the decline of traditional Peranakan lifestyles that's doing it, it's the time that making real kaya eats up: the hours upon hours of stirring thickening egg-and-coconut slurry just don't appeal to today's go-go-go generation.
You can still go shopping in Singapore and Malaysia and find off-the-shelf kaya, but true kaya enthusiasts complain about its thinner consistency and taste. The kopitiam throughout Singapore and Malaysia are still your best bet for the most authentic kaya experience - the kind that even nyonyas from centuries past might approve of.