It only takes a first spoonful of tong sui, or a first sip of iced coffee or lemongrass juice, to understand that Malaysia has a serious sweet tooth. (I'm all for something sweet after a meal, but had actually trouble tolerating the sugar levels of these.) Their selection of sweets is wide and varied, from chewy glutinous rice cakes to palm sugar-stuffed crepes to shaved ice of many kinds.
The kuih, little bite-sized snacks, though, I had no trouble with at all—often because, where they're heavy on the sugar, it can be really good sugar.
Beyond the usual divisions of brown, white, and powdered—and perhaps in food circles, muscavado, turbinado, and demerara—most of us don't spend too much time thinking about what sugar we use. But in Malaysia, many desserts are made or filled with gula melaka, coconut palm sugar. While you might know palm sugar as sold in hard, golden-brown blocks, fresher gula melaka is a much deeper brown and has a loose, moist texture, almost like wet soil, and a concentrated, molasses-like flavor with the sort of sweet complexity you'd associate with a good honey. It's something you want to taste, not just a means to a sweeter end. So when you bite into a soft ball of onde onde and a molten core of gula melaka oozes out, you're not hit by the sugar; you're hit by just how complicated and delicious that sugar is.
Kuih tend to be small, two-bite treats that are steamed, rather than baked, usually chewy, and generally based on some sort of starch—it might be glutinous rice or tapioca, might be glutinous rice or tapioca flour, might be mung bean or sweet potato. Expect coconut, shredded or in the guise of coconut milk or both, in just about everything.
Most kuih aren't particularly rich or heavy, which makes sense given the tropical climate; when you're sweating through a 90-degree day, a molten chocolate cake doesn't sound too appealing. To continue the refreshment theme, sweet soups ( tong sui ) are often served cold, and various forms of shaved ice are popular as well—topped with some ingredients you might expect (sweet syrups, condensed milk) and others you might not (peanuts, unsweetened beans, corn kernels).
And plenty of them are real eye candy. While peanut soup couldn't be called anything but homely, most kuih are brightly colored (whether thanks to vivid green pandan, purple yam, or orange sweet potato... or food coloring) and intricately crafted, some in elegant molds, some in careful layers or rolls.
Click through the slideshow to meet more sweets; but of course, a survey of ten doesn't begin to cover all the treats the country has to offer. Anyone out there have a favorite Malaysian dessert?