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Singapore Stories: Kaya Jam
What is kaya jam? It's a deliciously sweet curd made of caramelized sugar, coconut, and eggs that's infused with pandan, a subtly nutty flavored, bright green leaf. The color of the pandan tints the kaya a questionable shade of murky green. To me, it's a Southeast Asian version of dulce de leche, and I've been hooked on the stuff since the very first time I sampled it at a local coffee house, or kopitiam. Kaya jam is traditionally served slathered on toast (often pandan flavored), with pats of butter and the crusty ends of the toast trimmed off. Combined with the obligatory soft boiled eggs and a coffee or tea, it makes for a tasty snack or a not too heavy breakfast (compared to a hearty bowl of porridge).
Kaya jam served on toast was created by Chinese kitchen workers who served on British ships and eventually settled in Southeast Asia. These people began selling the toast that they served the British but with local jams such as kaya. Now it's sold all over Singapore and Malaysia (literally, almost every coffee stop will sell it). In the supermarket, there seem to be more brands of kaya than peanut butter.
Though the jarred versions are okay, and I'm more than happy to shell out the $2.50SG for a quick fix, I wanted to figure out how to make it myself. The ingredients are simple and can't get any more Southeast Asian: coconut cream, palm sugar, pandan leaves, and eggs. According to many recipes, all of the ingredients are slow cooked—very slow cooked—until everything caramelizes and thickens into the most addicting flavor you've ever tasted. The traditional way takes time and patience, and I had trouble keeping my eggs from curdling during the process. My solution? To caramelize the sugar first, then the coconut milk, and then stir in the eggs at the end, just as in a standard citrus curd. The result was a silky smooth, rich-flavored "jam" in a fraction of the time.
If you can find whole pandan leaves to cook with, great. If not, pandan flavoring is the next best choice, or the first one if you want a more in-your-face pandan flavor (the more, the better for me). Serve this tropical concoction on anything you can find, or better yet, grab a spoon and dig right in.
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About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Easy Artisan Bread. You can also watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. She presently lives in Singapore working on her new baking cookbook, and as a recipe developer for HungryGoWhere Singapore. Check out her blog, shophousecook.com, or follow her on Twitter @yvonneruperti.