Few Southeast Asian food traditions are more shared, celebrated, and argued over than kuih. Found in night markets and morning street stalls across the region, kuih encompasses steamed cakes, dumplings, and other palm-sized snacks — mostly sweet, sometimes savory — in dozens of varieties depending on locality, but all sharing a few core ingredients like rice, coconut, and pandan. A once dying art that is enjoying a revival both in Southeast Asia and here in the United States, kuih is famously temperamental. They are “living and breathing things,” says Mogan Anthony, the energetic co-owner of crowd favorite kuih shop Lady Wong. “Our recipes are never done. Every day, we adapt and change them.”
Along with Filipino cafe Kabisera, fellow Malaysian spot Kuih Cafe, and Indonesian pop-up Moon Man, Lady Wong is among the vanguard of shops in New York that are hyper-focused on Southeast Asian snack and food stall staples. And in this case, it’s been a hit: A year after Anthony and co-owner and wife Seleste Tan launched Lady Wong as a kuih delivery service in NYC, the Malaysian-born couple was able to translate their early success to a permanent storefront in the East Village, at 322 East Ninth Street, between First and Second Avenues. The stylish space includes a vibrant array of tidy kuih on one side, and Southeast Asian-influenced cakes and patisseries — reflecting the couple’s culinary training at fine dining spots WD-50 and Jean-Georges — on the other.
Not unlike the dedication needed to prepare a Michelin-starred dinner, making refined, exacting kuih is a time- and labor-intensive endeavor. Tan and Anthony source most of their key ingredients from Southeast Asian farmers directly — so much so that Lady Wong claims to be the largest buyer of imported pandan in New York City. All in, the couple has spent thousands of hours experimenting and honing their recipes. “It’s important because we want to honor the culture where we came from, and we want you to love the foods we grew up with,” Tan says.
Below, Tan and Anthony break down five of their favorite kuih and how each one comes together:
A staple throughout Southeast Asia, the iconic seri muka was the first kuih that Tan made in her home kitchen in New York. The steamed dessert looks fairly straightforward — a light green pandan custard layer on top of a bed of sticky rice — but, despite its simplicity, seri muka takes a seasoned hand to make, according to Tan. Made in a traditional, multitiered Chinese steamer, the kuih takes two days to prepare. The team steams and rests the rice three times over: once to prepare the rice, the second to add pandan and other seasoning, and the final time to cook with the pandan custard.
While the rice itself takes significant attention, the real challenge is in finding the right consistency for the custard: overcooked and it curdles, undercooked and it does not set up sufficiently. Depending on the day’s humidity, the ideal cooking time to achieve a creamy, firm custard spans three to five hours — a calculation that took “countless, hundreds” of trials, Anthony says. Then there is the balance of proportions between the two layers. Lady Wong favors a tall pandan custard, a fine dining spin on the dessert that is harder to execute because a taller custard requires more technique — with the right ratio of ingredients and precise cooking time — to stand up. To finish, Lady Wong stains the glutinous rice with blue pea flower to create the shop’s trademark cerulean blue swirl.
A textbook lapis sagu is translucent and stretchy, composed of nine layers of pandan-and-coconut-flavored tapioca squares that are best consumed, as by countless Malaysian school children, one layer at a time. Unlike other kuih, the lapis sagu has no rice flour. Instead, it relies solely on tapioca to achieve its stretchy, chewy, peel-apart layers. The construction is a matter of careful timing, as the vegan kuih is steamed layer by layer, for anywhere between 15 to 25 minutes. Each successive steam is slightly shorter than the last, lest the bottom overcooks — and the chefs determine the ideal texture by touch. In Lady Wong’s rainbow interpretation, the blue and red colors come from blue pea flower, juiced beetroot, red rice, and rose. At the end of the hours-long cooking process, if the lapis sagu doesn’t peel with the gentlest nudge, then Tan and Anthony start over from the first layer.
Angku kuih, or red tortoise cake, is a special-occasion Chinese-Malay kuih shaped like a tortoise shell and filled with mung bean or, on occasion, ground peanuts. For Anthony, the beauty of the angku kuih is in its distinctive shell and the discipline required to produce the molded dessert. It’s a two-day process: On the first day, the team steams the mung bean filling and allows it to rest to achieve a creamy consistency. On the second day, they flavor the filling with pandan and sugar, while preparing the beetroot juice-stained shell dough with rice, tapioca, and other starches. A small round of mung bean filling is then tucked into the dough, and the uncooked dumpling is pressed into intricately designed wooden turtle molds imported from Malaysia and steamed. Once started, the process cannot be halted or corrected, Anthony says, because the shells can dry out quickly.
Anthony separates the textures of kuih into five primary categories: bouncy, chewy, creamy, dense, and crusty. Ondeh ondeh, glutinous rice balls filled with a molten palm sugar syrup, is the quintessential chewy kuih. To create the perfect dough, Lady Wong dehydrates their rice flour mixture, sourced from Indonesia and Thailand, for 24 hours to extract any excess moisture before cooking begins. Then they combine the flour with juiced pandan and other seasonings. Once the dough is made, the team folds molten gula jawa, or palm sugar, into the rice dough rounds for a rich, darkly sweet, and slightly stretchy filling. The filled rice balls are boiled in water for eight to 10 minutes and then rolled in coconut flakes and served in a set of four on a banana leaf. “If you want to describe Southeast Asia in one bite,” says Anthony, “ondeh ondeh is probably the best.”
The most common kuih in Malaysia, according to Anthony, is pulut inti. The snack is made of a generous mound of slow-cooked, grated coconut that rests on top of a small bed of steamed rice. It is then wrapped up into a tidy pyramid with a banana leaf until only the top portion of the coconut filling is exposed. To arrive at the right ratio of tenderness to bite, Lady Wong painstakingly cooks the grated coconut with palm sugar for nearly eight hours, adding and adjusting the water to achieve a confit-like texture.
As with many kuih, salt plays a critical role in both parts of the pulut inti, serving to balance the near-savory coconut filling with the rice bed. To contrast the intense richness of the coconut, the rice bed is only lightly seasoned with coconut milk and otherwise left unsweetened. Consistent with Lady Wong’s refined take on kuih, the couple favors a tall portion of the rich coconut filling to make sure it’s included in every bite. For those born in Malaysia, the smell and taste of pulut inti — particularly the aroma of the unwrapped banana leaf — is imprinted on the memory the same way donuts might be for those born in the United States, Anthony says.
Lady Wong is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
John Tsung is a cultural writer and multidisciplinary artist whose work explores immigrant narratives and the Asian American experience, among other themes. You can find his work here.