IMHO, the coconut is king. Heh .. heh .. in the kingdom of traditional Malay desserts, that is. No dessert worthy of the name Malay kuih would be made without coconut milk. A little lower, down the chain of command would be palm sugar – also known as gula merah, gula jawa or gula melaka – that sweet delightful concoction made from the nectar of coconut flowers.
Coconut and palm sugar assume such important positions because they are “a must have ingredient” in most traditional Malay kuih. Think kuih gandus, bakar, sumsum, koci, pulut inti, serabai, dadar, onde-onde, getas-getas and all the kuih talam – what they have in common is the use of coconut, be it grated, squeezed or sweetened. No alternatives would do!
Of course there are pretenders to the throne like fresh or pasteurized milk but they have never come close to duplicating the taste of desserts made from fresh coconut milk. When it comes to making Malay traditional kuih nothing beats coconut milk – just nothing!
To understand why the Malays use coconuts in most of their dishes is to understand the culture of the Malay community. Its culinary is very much influenced by its natural environment. The traditional Malay kampung landscape is dotted with paddy fields and coconut trees. From the paddy fields come rice and glutinous rice and from the coconut trees come coconuts. The community gets what they need from their surroundings. The relationship is very symbiotic. It is no surprise then that rice and coconut become staples. And in the hands of the resourceful, the range of Malay desserts got wonderfully expanded.
Coconut is also known as “the tree with a thousand uses”. They are planted in the compound at the back of the house – usually nearer the kitchen. Besides providing fruits, the coconut trees provide shade and relief from the sun’s heat – among its many uses. I didn’t know until I read that coconut trees got planted at the same time a kampung house is built. How practical!
Fret not …for those of us who live in the city, coconut is readily available. They come pre-packed. Heh .. heh .. but I would still make my way to the market to get the fresh one. They just taste ..well .. more fresh!
Dessert made from coconut milk need not be all sweet. They can be savouries like kuih bakar daging or pulut panggang. Just go with your preference or with whatever you have at hands.
Coconut will always be used in Malay dishes. But in this age when healthy-lifestyle is the popular mantra, I guess a healthy balance can be strived for. Our grandparents balance their coconut intake with a lot of ulam. I think we can do the same.