Recipe: Nyonya Kaya

A guest post by Cheryl

Well-coiffed and always smelling of light floral-scented powder, my late Grandma Freda was a gentle force to be reckoned with. A mother of 4, and the third wife to my suave grandfather, her life revolved around church and cooking. Born and bred in Malacca, a hotchpotch of rich South East Asian influences, Grandma Freda was of Peranakan descent. Peranakans are known for their passion for food and my grandmother was no different.

Though I grew up in Singapore, as a child my parents brought me back to Malacca every year. My memory of every visit includes me playing outside in the backyard with Tiger and Puss-puss her two cats; it overlooked the expansive kitchen that was about 3 to 4 times the size of a generous Singapore HDB kitchen. She was always cooking something delicious. We weren’t very close but those smells – they are what I remember of my visits to Malacca. And whenever Grandma Freda came to Singapore to visit us, we would hang out in the bedroom while she told me historical nuggets of her life growing up. She was a sweet lady and one of the things I remember most is her and my dad making kaya in our kitchen.

Kaya by nature is very simple. It’s just coconut jam – I think of it like an Asian curd. Thickened by the eggs and aromatically scented by the pandan leaves infused within, kaya makes me very nostalgic. That distinctive sweet caramel custard-like scent wafting through the humid Singapore air (we had no air-conditioner growing up), whetting my tastebuds as I dream of my first bite of toast spread generously with that chestnut-coloured thick jam.

I wanted to replicate the food memory, especially that scent. As intoxicating as it was, it was so rare. This hankering prompted me to investigate into this elusive kaya recipe. Turned out it wasn’t that elusive – my dad sent over Grandma Freda’s recipe, a rough one at least. Daryl, having tasted many Peranakan delights, had not tasted a truly authentic kaya and I was keen for him to find out what that entails. So I passed along the recipe to him. He of course baulked at the step that said ‘cook over a double boiler for 7-8 hours’. I told him that was exactly how Grannie did it. Of course he found a smarter way round it. And the result was just as tasty. He used a stick blender as well so it was unbelievably smooth. Purists might say that’s not legit, but it does make for a more caramel smooth jam. 

Here’s the recipe, as prepared and modified by Daryl:

Grandma Freda’s Nyonya Kaya Jam

  • 5 eggs
  • 180 gm sugar
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • 4 – 5 pandan leaves, shocked in boiling water & tied into a knot
  • 50gm coconut sugar with a dash of water (cooked to a caramel & stirred in towards the end to finish)
The base ingredients

Mix your coconut cream, coconut milk, and sugar in a large bowl, whisk in your eggs and strain.
Shock the pandan leaf in some boiling water & tie into a knot.

Place a pot of water on the stovetop and set the heat to medium, place a heat proof bowl on top of the pot, that covers the pot and doesn’t come into contact with the water, to make a double boiler.

Add the coconut , egg and pandan mixture to this bowl.

Cooking over the double boiler

Take 2 lemongrass sticks. Bruise the roots & tie together with a rubber band – this is your old school spatula, using the root end to stir the kaya.

On low heat, cook your kaya on the double boiler for 20 minutes. Lumps will form from the egg coagulating, don’t worry, just keep stirring the whole time. It’s a work out but it’s worth it.

After 20 minutes it will be a little grainy and a yellowish green colour

Cook the the coconut sugar with a little water in a sauce pan to form a caramel. When the colour becomes golden brown, add the caramel into the kaya.

Remove the pandan from the kaya and using a stick blender (or a food processor if you don’t have one), and blend until the kaya is silky smooth. At this point you can add 1 1/2 tsp corn flour mixed with some water and cook it out for a two minutes, jar it and be done but we are going a little more old school.

After blending and adding the caramel, from here we will pressure cook it on low pressure

Grandma Freda would have put the mixture back onto the double boiler and cooked for a further 7-8 hours, stirring frequently, until the kaya thickens naturally.

We put our kaya 3/4 full in a canning mason jar, screwed on the lid 3/4 turns & placed in a pressure cooker for 45 minutes. With this step you will need to reblend again but it will thicken naturally and the kaya will caramelize beautifully resulting in a traditional home-style authentic Nyonya kaya to astound your family and friends.

When it comes out of the pressure cooker it will be very grainy but after blending again with the stick blender it becomes beautifully creamy like toffee
The finished Kaya

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