Springy Nyonya Kuih Talam
Kuih Talam, a classic Nyonya cake, is still popular in Penang today. Its two signature colours are green and white. The sweetened green base layer is perfumed with pandan (screw pine) juice while the top white layer has a "lemak" (rich) indulgence of santan (coconut milk) that is mildly salty. It is dangerously addictive and a slice is never enough. Maybe that is why nowadays, Kuih Talam is cut and packed in two or three pieces. I also notice that the pieces are much smaller than what they used to be when I was growing up.
In the 1970s, I remember an Indian Kuih Talam uncle who cycled around Penang to sell his cakes. He had a tricycle to carry huge circular trays (about 24-inches in diameter) of his wares. He would cut the Kuih Talam slices on-site and place them on banana leaves. I loved the corner pieces as they were slightly bigger slices. His Kuih Talam was “kiew” (Hokkien for springy) and had the right proportions of green and white layers (⅔ green to ⅓ white).
According to Mum, during the late 1940s, the Indian kuih sellers would have a kandar (two bamboo baskets balanced with a pole) and on each end, they would stack two to three tiers of kuih. She noted that they were very hardworking and would walk far to peddle their wares, making very little from the commission. Some would carry huge trays on their heads.
Another thing Mum highlighted was that it took a lot of hard work to make the Nyonya kuih back then. To begin with, the rice flour had to be manually ground with a grinding stone. Mum said she still has the grinding stone at home. (She also has the coconut scrapper.)
Come to think of it, I would not make any Nyonya kuih if I had to grind my own flour. How lucky we are today that we can just walk into a shop to buy flour, freshly squeezed santan from the wet market or even order what we need via our smartphones. Convenience is all at our fingertips and it is difficult to fathom the sheer perseverance and dedication the Nyonyas possessed back then to create these exquisite kuih.
Back to the story, in the 1990s, I could buy lovely Kuih Talam from an Indian vendor behind Penang Plaza. He sold savoury laksa and a variety of Nyonya kuih as well. Today, Nyonya kuih is available in Penang at roadside stalls in wet markets, at most food courts, at some cafes and restaurants.
Let us take a closer look at its name. The name says quite a lot and could shed some light on its origin. The word “kuih” (in Hokkien) has Chinese origins from the character 粿, and is pronounced “Guǒ” in Mandarin, referring to bite-size delicacies or desserts.
“Talam”, on the other hand, is Malay for “tray”. A popular theory is that the name of the cake has been derived from the tray used to steam it. Could the word, however, also hold other meanings?
Sanskrit is the primary ancient language spoken in many parts of the world including Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe. Words such as putera (son), puteri (daughter), asmara (love), samudra (ocean), belantra (jungle), sukma (soul) are all Sanskrit words, which thousands of Malay words have derived, either in original or in modified forms. Thus, what does “talam” mean in Sanskrit? According to some online Sanskrit dictionaries, among many other meanings, it means “the surface” as well as “the base”. The name of this cake, having two layers, would sound more poetic in Sanskrit.
Below is a simple-to-make recipe of Penang's popular Nyonya Kuih Talam.
Ingredients for the base green layer
- 130 g rice flour
- 30 g green pea flour
- 50 g tapioca flour
- 220 g sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 300 ml water
- 480 ml pandan juice (blend 20 pandan leaves with water)
- 1 tsp lye water (alkaline water)
Ingredients for the top white layer
- 300 ml fresh santan
- 150 ml water
- 40 g rice flour
- 20 g green pea flour
- 1 tbsp tapioca flour
- 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
- Mix the 3 types of flour with 300 ml water and set aside to rest for 10 minutes (the green pea flour takes a longer time to dissolve). Then add all other ingredients for the bottom green layer together. Pass the mixture through a sieve. Cook on low heat till it thickens slightly, stirring constantly.
- Slightly grease an 8” square pan (or 9-inch round pan) and pour in the mixture. Steam for 25-30 minutes, until the mixture is set. It should not wobble when you tilt the pan.
- Mix the ingredients for the top white layer together and cook on low heat till it thickens slightly.
- Dab the cooked green surface with a paper towel to make sure the surface is dry. Score lines on the surface with a fork before adding the white mixture on top. This will help the two layers to fuse more securely.
- Steam for about 20-30 minutes.
- The skewer test is a must. If the skewer is clean, the cake is cooked. Otherwise, steam longer.
- Set aside to cool for at least 4 hours before cutting into bite-sized diamond-shaped pieces with a plastic cutter/knife.
- Avoid using santan from a box. Always opt for fresh santan from the market. The taste is vastly different.
- To prevent water condensation from dropping into the cake while steaming, cover it with aluminum foil.
- Do not use high heat to steam the white layer, otherwise, bubbles will pop up and the surface will not be smooth. Open the cover every 5 minutes when steaming.
- The thick green layer should be smooth and “kiew” while the thinner white layer should be soft and creamy yet holding its shape well.
In the best of Patsie Cheong's cookbooks, "Home-made Nyonya", she presents a Nyonya Talam Kuih recipe replacing pandan extracts with sea-coconut sugar which colours the base layer brown instead of green. On the white base, she sprinkles some blue pea extract adding a touch of blue onto the pristine white surface. In Baba Philip Chia's cookbook, "With Love, from Little Nyonya" he mixes the Kuih Talam base with purple yam. I am a huge fan of colourful food, so long as only natural ingredients are used. I look forward to making some Kuih Talam using the above recipes someday.
The Malay versions of Kuih Talam being sold in Penang can be very different. They run in a myriad of colours! To me, these cakes are usually very sweet, not “kiew” and sadly, often disappointing because I can taste the flour in them. I wish these cooks would use less food colouring and more natural alternatives.
If you want to skip cooking and just enjoy some good Kuih Talam, here are some of the places to venture for in Penang:
- Ayer Itam Market: mornings
- Batu Lanchang Market Food Court: 3:30 pm – 6:00 pm
- Cecil Street Market: 2:00 – 5:00 pm
- Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih, Jalan Masjid (off Chulia Street): 10:30 am – 5:00 pm
PS: The pandan Kuih Kosui has almost the same texture as the base of Kuih Talam. Using almost similar ingredients, the former is eaten with freshly grated coconut. The cute petite circular cakes with a dimple in the middle, are moulded in small Chinese teacups. The Nyonyas pay attention to everything. The dimples in the cake are obtained by heating up the tea cups before the mixture is poured into them. Brown gula Melaka (palm sugar) Kuih Kosui is equally delicious. Although these two kinds of kuih have so much in common, their presentation is very different. I can only deduce that these two kuih must have the same origin, the creative play of their inventive creators.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 24 June 2021