An Ode to Kueh, the Vibrant and Limitless Southeast Asian Dessert
Kueh, or kuih, is hard to define but nevertheless a colorful dessert and snack.
It’s nearly impossible to define kueh (sometimes written as kuih), the genre-bending dessert/snack that exists across Southeast Asia—specifically throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
“There’s a huge world to discover with kueh, but to me, I always think of it as being colorful and eye-catching,” says Tara Carrara, one half of the sister duo that runs Los Angeles-based Bungkus Bagus, a Balinese street food pop-up. “A lot of Indonesian desserts are really playful. That’s the spirit of the dessert—it’s supposed to be really fun.”
That’s definitely the case for kueh lapis, a steamed cake with rainbow layers that peels away like string cheese. The Carrara sisters prepare trays of kueh lapis every weekend for their stand in LA’s Smorgasborg.
There are dozens of different types of kueh to get excited about. What’s known as klepon in Indonesia and onde-onde in some parts of Malaysia is a glutinous rice ball filled with a palm sugar syrup that is then rolled in coconut shavings—what Celene Carrara, the other half of Bungkus Bagus, refers to as “the OG gusher experience” thanks to the sticky exterior and gooey sugar center.
The history of kueh and its religious affiliations
Kueh can be a spiritual food, something found on altars and prayed over. “When you see photos of Bali and the women going to temple with big, ornate [kueh] on their heads, it was for special ceremonies,” Celene explains, “and then once the rituals were complete and they'd been offered to the gods, then it was ok for us to take part and eat them.”
Religion and holidays are also something that comes to mind for Safira Ezani, who runs a Malaysian food pop-up in Seattle called Masakan with her mom, Mas Puteh. “When I think of kueh memories I think of Hari Raya, which is what we call Eid in Malaysia,” Ezani says. “They have what they call kuih raya. It’s not something you can only make during raya, but you see it more often—like these very flaky pineapple tarts called tart nenas.”
Being so entrenched in religion also means that kueh has an established history. Victor Low, the founder and chef behind the Peranakan restaurant Kapitan in Chicago, suggests that kueh is what kings were dining on hundreds of years ago. “The roots can be traced back to imperial China in the 1400s. The kings back then were all splurging—they didn’t have just one meal, but a few hundreds of items on every plate,” Low says.
China has always been a vast country, with regional cuisines that differ from city to city. When chefs across China honored the kings with their interpretation of kueh, they’d be made with different tools and ingredients. “That’s why kueh comes in so many forms,” Low explains. Pair that with the way kueh has migrated, and the ingredients native to Southeast Asia, and you have hundreds of interpretations of this dessert snack.
For many, kueh is a nostalgic taste of childhood
For Puteh, kueh is intertwined with childhood memories spent growing up in Negeri Sembilan, a state in Malaysia just southeast of Kuala Lumpur. “We ate or made kueh almost every day,” Puteh reminisces. “My mom was a kueh seller, so kueh is ingrained in our minds. The one I remember my mom making a lot is kuih koci.”
Little did Puteh know that she, too, would become a kueh seller. Alongside her daughter, the duo decided to perfect the multigenerational family recipe and serve kuih koci at their pop-ups, which often include savory Malaysian meals of rendang and murtabak, as well as spreads of kuih.
“Kuih koci is almost like a steamed mochi wrapped in a banana leaf,” Ezani explains. The kuih is constructed of glutinous rice flour that envelops a shredded coconut and palm sugar filling, which is then layered with a salty coconut cream for a sweet and savory treat.
For Mogan Anthony, who cofounded Lady Wong, a bakery and kueh shop in New York’s East Village, alongside his wife, Seleste Wong, there is no right or wrong time to enjoy kueh. “It could be dinner or snacks, breakfast, a late lunch, or tea time,” he lists off. “There’s no boundary or limits of how you eat it or what time you eat it—it’s just part of the culture in Southeast Asia.”
Common ingredients used to make kueh
Anthony, who grew up in Northern Malaysia, close to the border of Thailand, recalls his father picking up packs of kueh for him after work. Although Anthony was raised in Malaysia, he has family in Thailand and has also spent a decade in Singapore. When it comes to kueh, he finds what links all the recipes—regardless of regionality—are the ingredients.
“Maybe they’re slightly different colors from village to village or they represent different family values or symbolism sometimes, but the primary ingredients between all these countries are the same,” Anthony says. This includes glutinous rice flour, palm sugar, coconuts, and of course pandan. “We drink and shower in pandan in Southeast Asia,” he laughs.
Low cites kueh filled with meats, flakier kuehs similar to Western pastries, as well as kuehs that toe the line between the two, satisfying both sweet and savory appetites. “It’s a dessert, it’s a cuisine, and it’s a meal,” he explains, “but the similar commonality across all kueh is that it’s meant to be finger food and it’s rich in presentation—meaning color, flavor, texture, and taste.”
When it comes to kueh, everything is symbolic. A color in a specific kueh may represent prosperity, while its shape could imply longevity or luck. “Everything has a reason—from the way it was prepared to the way it is prepared to the tasting profile,” Low says. “If you dig further into it, you’re actually tasting a part of history.”
Using kueh as a means of preserving culture
The connective thread between all these purveyors of kueh is the ability to provide a taste of home, for both themselves and for their customers, and to further educate the American public on what kueh can be.
Anthony and Wong founded Lady Wong when homesickness for Singaporean treats throughout the COVID-19 pandemic became unbearable. Celene and Tara started Bungkus Bagus to replicate their favorite restaurant in Ubud, knowing they wouldn’t be able to find anything similar in Los Angeles—so they had to do it themselves.
Puteh and Ezani want to preserve Malaysian recipes, trying their best to stick to classic ingredients and preparations even in Seattle’s much cooler climate. And Low wants Americans to recognize the vast and impressive heritage intertwined with kueh.
“Our joy is bringing what we were so blessed to have as kids to people here, for people who like us grew up in Indonesia and had to leave or for whatever reason,” Tara says. “So many people are like, ‘Oh my God, I was l brought back to my childhood or my aunt’s cooking.’ So I think that for us, the dream is to bring that very singular experience of Bali to people here in LA.”
Puteh feels similarly. “If back home to Malaysia, it’s hard to find a similar flavor to what I grew up with because all the sellers are already dead and have taken their recipes to the grave,” she laughs. “That’s why I’m inspired to preserve tradition,” creating kueh alongside her daughter who can continue to uphold its delicious, palm sugar-kissed legacy.