Something to write home about.
By comparison to other cities that we have lived in, NYC stands out for its pizza, high-end Japanese and French restaurants, cheap and cheerful Latin and Korean joints, and increasingly, a diversity of regional Chinese eateries. South-East Asian cuisine by contrast, is profoundly under-represented. Vietnamese pho here generally lacks a depth of flavour, Thai food typically feels as though a bucket of sugar has been tipped in, and Malaysian food? *insert cry emoji* Sometime in the late summer of 2020, we came across Kuih Cafe‘s Instagram page. A tiny shop front located in a lesser-frequented section of Chinatown, it is essentially, a love letter to Malaysia. We have visited several times since the summer, and in a city where repeat visits are rare, it has become one of our favourite NYC dessert secrets.
For those unfamiliar with Malaysian desserts, kuih is a steamed cake, made of rice flour (or tapioca flour), with varying degrees of coconut cream, gula melaka (palm sugar) and pandan. Kuih comes in many different forms and colours. Long-time readers of this dessert blog may recall our past review of kuih shops in Melbourne (here and here), and may also recall that in Malaysia itself, this labour-intensive dessert is becoming harder and harder to find.
Every week around the mid-week point, Kuih Cafe publishes a new menu, for walk-in purchase over the weekend. There’s usually 1-2 savoury offerings (think, nasi lemak, rendang, chicken rice), but the rest of the menu is entirely about desserts. You must not miss the kuih sampler ($10). We have tried kuih flavoured with ube, coconut, gula melaka, red bean, and pandan, and dusted with freshly-grated coconut. We love more, the tubular cigars of kuih dadar, filled with roasted coconut, and the multi-layered diamonds of kuih lapis. The pandan flavour of all Kuih Cafe’s kuih could generally be a more pronounced, but regardless, these irresistible bite-sized treats demand repeat visits.
Aside from kuih, Kuih Cafe also offers cake slices ($7) — we especially love, the very flavourful, airy “Ondeh Ondeh Pandan Chiffon Cake” and the sweeter “Kaya Layer Cake”. We understand from the shopkeeper that the “Durian Cheesecake” is particularly popular with other customers — not being cheesecake-lovers ourselves, we haven’t yet tried this. There are usually also small packets of “Ondeh Ondeh” and “Pineapple” cookies ($5) on offer. These are ultra buttery, addictive nibbles.
Prior to the pandemic, our passport was our autobiography, each immigration chop a souvenir of the many places visited, sights seen, food eaten, so many places, so little time. Our last overseas trip was in January 2020, when we returned home to Melbourne for Chinese New Year. Had it gone to plan, 2020 would have also seen us in Norway and China for leisure, the U.K. for work. Just over a year has passed now, this has perhaps been the longest stretch of time where we haven’t parked our bottoms on a plane seat. Our passports are now like forlorn, dusty antique books. When will we be able to travel internationally again? So many questions, yet no answers. So for now, we will attempt to find solace in Kuih Cafe’s desserts. It’s as close as we will get to the Malaysian-Chinese food that our parents make, as close as we will get to visiting home for the foreseeable future. Something to write home about, it’s a warm hug in the blur of life in New York.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Kuih Cafe, 46 Eldridge Street, Chinatown, Manhattan.
- ☑ Budget: $ (USD $10 for the kuih sampler, USD $7 for the cake slices).
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Kuih.
- ☑ Must-eat: Everything, but definitely the kuih sampler.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Something to write home about.