The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read all her mission reports here.
I believe the simplest dishes are also the easiest to mess up. Take the plain omelet, for instance, or just steamed rice—both are so clean of flavor, so unadulterated, that there's nothing for you to hide your mistakes behind. No cloak of smoky spices, no razzle-dazzle of MSG—just the purest expressions of egg and grain.
And so it is the case with kaya—a rich, fragrant custard that South-East Asians like to slather, along with a generous dollop of salted butter, on their morning toast. Made with eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, there are many, many online posters who promise that kaya is a cinch to make—so long as you have the patience for it. And that, I guess, is my problem. I have zero patience for standing over a pot, stirring spoon in hand, steam fogging up my glasses. (It's the reason why I never make risotto.)
And yet, the silken, caramel sweetness of kaya, with its siren song of unctuous coconut bewitches me. Three times I have attempted to make the stuff form scratch, and three times I have ended up with a pan full of scrambled eggs. Sweet, coconutty, completely unsalvageable scrambled eggs.
Kaya is speculated to have originated from a Portuguese treat called ovos moles or "soft eggs." But local cooks upped the heart-attack ante on the original recipe by replacing the water and rice with coconut milk. The Nonya (Straits Malays) add fresh screwpine leaves—Asian vanilla—to the mix, which tints the custard green. While the Hainanese (migrant Chinese from Hainan island) allow the sugar in the kaya to caramelize, rendering it a deep shade of brown. Both versions are delicious, especially when the accompanying toast has been griddled over a charcoal brazier so that the charred bits echo the smokiness in the kaya.
Kaya toast, of course, isn't complete without its sidekicks. At the local coffee shops, softboiled eggs are served to you still in their shells. You crack them with a teaspoon, coax the quivery whites and molten yolks into a plate, then season them to taste with dark soy sauce and ground white pepper. To eat like the locals, you muddy the eggs, put down your spoon, lift the plate to your lips, and let the glorious mess slide down your throat. Wash it all down with a kopi gow—thick, black coffee (think a triple espresso) sweetened with condensed milk.
Some call this heaven. I call it a highway to a heart attack. But I relish it just the same (maybe even replacing the ordinary toast with French toast, sometimes). Here in the States, you can find fuss-free kaya on the shelves at Ranch 99. "Glory" brand is an offering of the green, Nonya version and isn't half bad. But if you aren't turned off by repetitive stirring, fresh, homemade kaya cannot be beat. I've heard you can use your breadmaker's "jam" function, which will churn out kaya in an hour. Or you can use a slow cooker—though this requires stirring (albeit less frequently) over a period of five to seven hours. Or you can go the traditional route, and use a double boiler. You will spend two hours of your life watching the kaya like a hawk and stirring like crazy, but you will get kaya. Rich, delicious kaya. (Unless you get impatient like me and turn up the heat. Then you will get scrambled eggs.)
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.