10 Great Malay Sweets
Favourite Malay snacks and where to find them
During Malaysia’s colonial occupation by the British, teatime used to be a supremely important meal, with scones, cakes and cookies all paraded in front of diners, making this one of the most colourful repasts of the day. Malaysian sweets were also introduced into the line up and as time went on and the country gained its independence, the tradition of teatime was still highly regarded and observed. Today you’ll still find lots of places offering western-like cakes, cupcakes and cookies but it is the places that serve authentic Malaysian sweets that have stolen our hearts. Here are ten of our favourites – ranging from kuihs (desserts usually made from glutinous rice) and fried desserts to specialty pancakes and shaved ice – as well as some of the best places to find them.
This brightly-coloured dessert is known by a few names – the most popular of which is ABC (ais batu campur or mixed ice). It is basically shaved ice, with red rose, sarsi (sasparilla) or brown sugar syrup, sprinkled with corn kernels, red beans and jelly bits, and doused with evaporated, condensed or coconut milk. Some street vendors have unusual dressings like basil seeds, durian, ice cream, fruits, raisins and palm nuts but we love our ais kacang traditional style. Also try cendol – a soup-like dessert of chewy, green mung bean blended with ice, palm sugar syrup and coconut milk and topped with bits of grass jelly: some versions might even see ingredients such as red beans and creamed corn added. We recommend you make a pit stop at Ah Keong’s ais kacang stall in front of 7-Eleven, in Brickfields (along Jalan Padang Belia), Little India for the best ais kacang and cendol in KL.
A classic street food snack, apam balik is a buttery pancake that comes in two varieties. The thick variety is Malay in origin and has an almost sticky, cake-like consistency with a filling of crushed peanuts, drizzled with gooey, honey and sprinkled with salty, juicy sweet corn. The thin version, similar to American pancakes, is smaller and has Chinese roots, with fillings that range from bananas, to chocolate. You can find this street snack at almost any pasar malam (night market) in the city, but we love the stall at the head of the Petaling Street market.
A favourite especially among the little ones, bahulu is a traditional Malay sponge cake, usually baked in the form of a button or goldfish. Combinations of eggs, flour and sugar result in this crowd-pleaser and these golden, crusty-yet-soft cakes make a great companion to tea and coffee. Grab a packet of these pre-packaged treats at the daily Chow Kit wet market (between Jalan Raja Laut and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman) or at the Jalan TAR pasar malam – one of the city’s biggest night markets, which takes place every Saturday.
A sweet, baked dessert of grated tapioca, coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan-flavoured (screw pine leaves) custard, this sunshine-yellow kuih has a gelatinous texture and a light brown crust of grated coconut. Also called Casanova cake, it is a simple dish that is chewy and not too sweet: we recommend you get a slice from Nyonya Colors, a pop-up restaurant on the lower ground floor of The Gardens, Mid Valley mall.
For something a little bit chewy, try out dodol. Some regard making dodol as a family affair, as it requires a painstaking process of stirring its ingredients (coconut milk, jaggery and rice flour) in a big wok for nine hours non-stop. The end result is a non-stick, thick, deep golden brown delicacy that is usually cut into smaller pieces and wrapped in plastic, and further packed into boxes for easier transportation. Look out for these sweets at the giant local produce Tan Kim Hock if you are ever in Malacca (where you can find weird varieties like durian-flavoured dodol), but if you can’t make your way there, stalls in Pasar Seni will also have boxed-up, homemade dodol.
Kuih ketayap, or kuih dadar, is another local favourite for teatime. A soft, tube-shaped pandan crepe rolled up like a spring roll with sweet grated, dark brown coconut filling in its centre. This snack has Nyonya origins and is usually judged by the amount of its filling – the fatter it is the better! The texture of the crepe varies from stall to stall – some are smooth and flawlessly green due to the use of a non-stick pan when ‘grilling’ the crepe, while others are spotted with groves – either way, this snack is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth. We recommend you make your way to La Cucur in Suria KLCC (they also have a branch in KL Sentral) to grab one of these authentic Malay snacks.
A steamed nine-layer cake, this rainbow-coloured sweet is made from coconut milk, tapioca flour, coarse sugar, rice flour and pandan leaves. What makes it special is the way you eat it – you can choose to bite into all nine layers or peel off and enjoy each layer one by one. Soft, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, this sweet can be found almost anywhere in the city when stalls set up to sell evening teatime snacks in the city but since we prefer air-conditioned comfort, we recommend you grab a slice from La Cucur in Suria KLCC – their version is sweet but not overpoweringly so.
Looking like a neon green tennis ball covered with whorls of white string, ondeh ondeh is another popular Malay teatime snack. What makes it special is its core of gooey, brown palm sugar which acts as a sweet contrast to the green glutinous rice casing. Also called coconut poppers, the stringy white whorls on each ball are actually coconut shavings which give each ball a crunchy bite. In our opinion the best ondeh ondeh can be found at Nyonya Colors on the lower ground floor of The Gardens, Mid Valley mall.
Roughly translated to banana fritters, pisang goreng is a favourite tea-time snack in KL. It really depends on your taste buds how you choose to enjoy this sweet – some stalls have sweetened bananas coated in flour and fried, while others prefer to have them not-too-ripe, which create a slightly different experience taste-wise. We love it when the bananas are dipped in honey and then fried which makes each banana fritter especially sweet – the perfect accompaniment to your evening glass of teh tarik (milky tea). There is a stall in SS2 (a residential neighbourhood of Petaling Jaya), opposite Pelita Nasi Kandar restaurant, where you can find some of the best, sweetest pisang goreng in the city.
Divided into two layers – sweet pandan custard on the top and steamed glutinous rice on the bottom – this is one of the most popular Malay sweets. Sometimes the glutinous rice is dotted blue from the addition of butterfly pea flowers but otherwise this kuih looks the same at whichever street vendor you frequent. It tastes milky and the texture is both rough and smooth, due to the contrasting layers. Make your way down to Taman Tun Dr. Ismail (about 20 minutes from the city centre) for the best seri muka in KL – there is a stall which sets up in the evenings along the alley beside 7/11, plus the area is packed with stalls selling other Malay teatime snacks.