I used to think everyone ate this kueh on Hari Raya. It made me sad that that’s not true
As Singapore marks its first Ramadan in the new, new normal, CNA Lifestyle's Hidayah Salamat wonders if she should recreate her favourite childhood dessert or allow it to remain what it is – a delicious memory.
I try to bake every Ramadan. I’m by no means a baker – I don’t have a sweet tooth and I’m not fond of bread. I also don’t like coconut (important information for later).
But in the last few weeks of Ramadan, that final stretch before Hari Raya, I have to have the smell of baking in my house.
So I bake. Mini cups of crunchy cornflakes, kept together with a rich glue of honey and butter. Enough to fill a couple of baking trays and paint a picture of the industrious housewife. Enough to keep the kueh jars in my home and at my parents’ filled for a few weeks of festive merriment.
I don’t know how or when it happened but honey cornflakes have become a ubiquitous Hari Raya snack.
Again, I’m not a baker, so I’m thankful for this new development. It ticks all my boxes: It’s quick to bake and easy to make – a meditative experience for an anxious person, and everyone loves it so it’ll never get wasted.
Also, the smell. Every time I make this, I feel like putting up a “Free smells” sign at my window like they do at Famous Amos.
But sometimes, instead of honey cornflakes, I wished I was making coconut candy.
If you think honey cornflakes or even Famous Amos cookies make the best smells in the world, you should try and get a whiff of coconut candy. It’s heavenly.
It’s grated white coconut flesh dry-roasting in a wok.
It’s smoky coconut drowning in full-cream evaporated milk and sugar.
It’s softened butter, bringing it all together.
It’s vanilla and sometimes rose essence, like that perfume you spray when you want to smell irresistible.
And that divine smell lasts all the way until that sticky, gooey mess is poured into a greased tin, left to cool and cut into squares, ready to be eaten.
You could keep your candy dastardly pale or you could dye the bars red and green the way my babysitter did. Yes, like Christmas. For Hari Raya, instead of serving the candy as bars, she fills small cupcake cases with it. Bite-sized. Addictive.
THAT FIRST BITE
My babysitter, Wak Jum, cared for me from when I was a newborn up until I was about four. She was a fantastic cook and baker.
Days at her place were pretty much a whirlwind of meal times and snack times. Until today, she’s the only person I know who actually serves a spread for tea. Strong, hot tea. Hot fried snacks.
The first time I saw her make coconut candy I recall I was sitting at the dining table, having one of these teatime snacks. I would have been freshly showered, my short wispy hair neatly combed with a side parting, my short legs swinging off the chair. Earlier, when it was still light, she had arranged the uncut trays of coconut candy on the parapet along the corridor, to let them cool. I worried they were meant for the birds. I watched the trays keenly.
Thankfully, the candy was safe. Happily, she let me have some. It was just as I had imagined.
That sticky, moreish chew. The creamy mouthfeel. The milky taste.
Some things, like vanilla extract, smell like heaven and taste like hell.
Coconut candy smells like heaven and tastes like heaven.
You can take it from me.
If you believe that babies come from heaven, you can trust they know what heaven tastes like. Have you seen a baby taste chocolate or lick a lollipop for the first time? They get a little spasm in their body, their eyes all but pop out of their sockets, and if they never learned to grab before, oh they know how to do it now.
I was maybe four when I had that first bite of coconut candy. My mum was very strict with me when it came to my diet. I either ate vegetables or I didn’t eat. I only had sweets on special occasions.
After that first bite, I held that piece of candy in my little hand and turned it round and round, studying it from all angles, thinking: “What is this? How do I have more of this?”
Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to take any home. But years later, when I was a teenager, we visited Wak Jum and she packed some for me in a container.
DO I STILL WANT CANDY?
I’m surprised I remember all this so well.
After that last visit, I didn’t even think about coconut candy again until I got married, moved out of my parents’ home and was pondering the sort of Hari Raya traditions I wanted to have for my own family.
That’s when it hit me. I never saw anyone but my babysitter serve coconut candy for Hari Raya. According to Google, coconut candy originated in Malaysia. Apparently, at some point it was so popular the recipe was printed on the back of cans of evaporated milk.
I asked around and no one I knew had had the same childhood experience with coconut candy as I did. Most people didn’t even know what coconut candy was.
Wak Jum, bless her, has pretty much stopped making candy. When I suggested to her daughter that we try to make it together and capture it on video, she reminded me that the family typically cooks it over a "dapur arang" (pot of charcoal) and it can take hours.
I considered making it myself (on a much smaller scale) and having it become a part of my own family tradition, along with the honey cornflakes.
“That looks really sweet. You don’t like sweet things,” someone said to me when I told them about this.
They were right.
Will I have the same experience eating it today? I doubt it. I don’t have a sweet tooth and I don’t like coconut.
Do I want to bake trays and trays of artificially coloured bars of sugar that no one will eat, just for the heck of it?
Perhaps not. Perhaps some things are best left in the past.
They – mainly Hallmark card writers and “motivational” Instagram accounts – say: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Sounds like psychobabble but the truth is, while I will probably never enjoy coconut candy again the way I did all those years ago, every time I close my eyes and think back on the memory of that first bite, I can’t help but smile a little.