Lady Wong, a kuih and pastry shop in New York’s East Village, began as a pandemic project. Homesick for traditional Malay and Singaporean sweets, pastry chef Seleste Tan baked trays of pineapple cookies at home and gave them to neighbours. When people came knocking on her door asking for more, the seed for this idea sprouted and Tan, along with her husband, chef Mogan Anthony, opened Lady Wong in the winter of 2021. While the bakery makes cakes and verrines flavored with gula melaka, pandan and passion fruit, it is the delicate and complex kuih that attracts most customers. Kuih are bite-sized snacks and desserts found in parts of Southeast Asia, China and Brunei, characterized by their typical use of coconut for flavor and fat, and a starch – rice, wheat or tapioca flour – for structure.
This rose-scented kuih lapis (lapis translates to “layers”) is popular in the Malay community, served either as an evening snack or for breakfast and makes an appearance at weddings and other special events.
Kuih can be made with only rice flour, only wheat flour, or entirely with tapioca starch (as is often the case in Singapore). At Lady Wong, they use a combination of all three to find the perfect textural balance of wonky, fluffy, creamy and springy.
Stick to Thai or Vietnamese brands of rice flour and tapioca starch to replicate the texture of kuih at Lady Wong. Rice (and its starch content) varies by country, and Japanese or Indian rice flour can give different results. Same with coconut milk – look for Thai or Vietnamese brands as they tend to be thicker, creamier and better emulsified. If you can’t find fresh or frozen pandan leaves to infuse the coconut milk with, simply substitute with vanilla extract. Anthony cautions against using clear pandan extract, which tends to give kuih unpleasantly pungent alcoholic notes. If your rose syrup is very pale straight out of the bottle, the suggested food coloring will go a long way to creating a crisp, clear color contrast between the layers.
Using a measured amount of paste per coat and setting a timer promises precise stripes of color that don’t bleed into each other. Steaming the kuih is perhaps the hardest part of the whole process. Patiently waiting for each layer to cook can seem endless when you want a slippery slice of kuih right now – consider it your day’s meditation. Thinner layers cook quickly but require more mixing action, while two or three thick layers may seem simpler but take much longer to cook. The six layers suggested in this recipe is a good balance between workable and artistic (Lady Wong typically does 57 layers).