Snapshots from Asia: Traditional Kuih Muih for the Gluten-Free Dessert Fiend


There’s a saying that a girl’s father is her first true love. The first man who loves her—and whom she loves—wholeheartedly.

My dad has a sweet tooth, which is probably why I find men who enjoy dessert so appealing. I once had a date who gave me the bleeding heart routine, telling me with a soulful, faraway look in his eyes that he avoided all things sweet. Why? "Because life is hard," he said. His family struggled for years to make ends meet. Denying himself sweetness was his way of reminding himself not to take things for granted. It was a touching story, but I dodged a kiss and was quick to offer my hand in friendship at the end of the night—just like Dad told me.

Unfortunately for Dad and his soft spot for dessert, he’s noticed over the past few years that cakes, pies, and cookies have been giving him the dreaded bloat (as in gas, not heft). But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon floggers chronicling their battle with gluten intolerance that the coin dropped. Since then, Dad has been turning a sad, puppy dog look on me every time the house fills with the familiar, mouth-watering aroma of banana bread, yo-yos, or fruit crumble in the making.

Gluten-Free Kuih Muih to the Rescue

Fortunately, wheat is a Johnny-come-lately to the South East Asian diet, and this has made Dad’s transition to gluten-reduced eating a lot easier than expected. Because wheat isn't grown here, local foods rely heavily on gluten-free crops like rice, tapioca, sago, and mung beans. Traditional S.E. Asian munchies called kuih muih (singular: kuih) are made of native flours, and generally steamed, not baked. This is because back in the day, few households owned ovens, and fuel scarcity made steaming a lot more efficient than baking. As such, some textures that the Western dessert lover is used to in his sweets—crispness and crumbliness—can be missing in a S.E. Asian treat. Instead, a pleasant, softly-yielding bounce (that the Taiwanese call “QQ”) is the dominant texture. While Western treats rely on the caramelization of sugars for chewiness and stretch, S.E. Asian treats rely on the natural “bounce” that sago pearls, glutinous rice flour, and tapioca flour impart.

Salty, Sweet, and Artificially Colored

For flavoring, kuih muih depend on native ingredients like coconuts, bananas, mangos, wonderfully aromatic pandan leaves, molasses-like gula melaka or palm sugar, local spice blends, and the cook’s deft hand with salt. Salt brings out the richness of coconut milk, and provides a much needed foil for the otherwise one-note sweetness of kuih muih. Interestingly, ingredients that most of us wouldn’t generally associate with sweets—like deep fried shallots—sometimes find their way into S.E. Asian desserts (cue the lip-smacking, head tilting, brow furrowing concentration of an eater as he wonders, “Now, what could that little something be?”). The brilliant colors of kuih muih used to be derived solely from natural plant tints, but are, sadly, more likely attributable to the likes of FD&C Blue No. 1 these days.

Dangerously Addictive Snacks—Lots of Them

20080616-kuih2.jpgKuih muih aren't just limited to sweets, though. There’s a whole spectrum of savory kuih muih that draws on unexpected ingredients like dried shrimp chile, sticky rice, curried potatoes, and shredded turnips for taste, texture, and ballast. And as you would have guessed, kuih muih are not just a post-meal thing. Instead, they’re an “anytime you feel peckish” habit. Which means (to borrow Hobbit-speak) they appear at first breakfasts, second breakfasts, third breakfasts, brunches, teas, in-betweens, befores, durings, and afters. Kuih muih exist to titillate the tastebuds and ruin meals, and, like all habits, are hard to kick.

On the Father’s Day weekend just past, the plan was to rise early, go to the wet market, and pick out one of every kuih that the smiling kuih muih lady and her husband had to offer. Kuih muih varieties number in the hundreds, but the hardworking couple usually rotate a selection of 25. To cut a long story short, coconut cakes with palm sugar syrup is the quickie recipe I ended up using when that brilliant plan (and my alarm clock) broke. It’s has only four ingredients and doesn’t require you to do any complicated layering or finicky stuffing. It was also ready by the time dad rose from his sleep-in. The clincher? It’s Dad approved.