Explainers

What is kaya?

A staple in Singaporean and Malaysian coffee shops, this coconut spread lends an extra dimension to sweet breakfasts and desserts.

By Emma Knowles

What is kaya?

Kaya is a very sweet coconut custard made with coconut milk and sugar, thickened with egg and often flavoured with pandan leaf. It's popular throughout South-East Asia, particularly in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and parts of Indonesia.
There are two main types: Hainanese kaya made with caramelised or brown sugar, which has a rich caramel colour, and Nyonya kaya, tinted green by the pandan that flavours it. In addition, the recipe varies from house to house – some use duck eggs, others chicken; some are thick and spreadable while others have a thinner consistency. Considering the ingredients, it's no surprise that the word translates to "rich" in Malay. The best versions are beautifully smooth and so thick you can stand a spoon up in them.

Why do we care?

If you've ever had kaya toast – charcoal-grilled bread topped with a generous whack of salted butter and spread thickly with kaya (often served with a strong coffee and soft eggs seasoned with dark soy and pepper) – you'll know this spread is addictive. If you haven't, all you need to know is that kaya makes pancakes, crêpes and waffles (or anything you'd drizzle with honey or maple syrup) better than you could ever imagine.

Where can I get it?

You can buy commercially produced kaya from select Asian grocery stores, but if you can't find it, try our home-made version here. It takes a lot of stirring, but trust us, one taste and it will be worth it.

How to make kaya

Makes about 500ml
  1. Stir 3 eggs, 2 egg yolks and 150gm caster sugar in a heatproof bowl with a whisk until smooth and runny, then whisk over a saucepan of simmering water until sugar completely dissolves (4-5 minutes).
  2. Whisk in 300ml coconut cream to combine, then add 3 pandan leaves, knotted together. Stir continuously until mixture is the consistency of lemon curd (25-30 minutes), then remove from heat (discard the pandan).
  3. Cook another 50gm caster sugar in a small saucepan over high heat until caramelised (2-3 minutes), remove from heat, carefully whisk in 1 tbsp butter and a pinch of salt, then whisk into coconut mixture.
  4. Place the bowl back over simmering water and stir continuously until slightly thickened (4-5 minutes), remove from heat and whisk occasionally until cooled to room temperature.
  5. Pour into sterilised jars, refrigerate to chill completely and seal. Kaya will keep for 3 weeks