1. Hainanese Kaya 2. Nonya Kaya(Home) 3. Nonya Kaya(Store) 4. Hybrid Kaya
Kaya is a custard made with coconut milk that is popular in Singapore and Malaysia. Like regular jam, it is most often used as a bread spread (its technically not a jam since it is not made from fruit) at breakfast and afternoon tea. Because of its sweet taste, Kaya is also used as an ingredient is various local desserts in Southeast Asia from Thailand to Indonesian. If you are from outside the region, think of it as something like creme brulee in a bottle.
The recipe for making kaya varies from household to household but typically involves cooking a mixture of 10 eggs, 500g of sugar and 500 ml of coconut milk over a double boiler, stirring frequently. Its pretty much the same as making a sabayon or custard, except you stand there cooking and stirring for a very, very long time.
There are two main types of Kaya. The more original variety is Hainanese Kaya (bottle No.1), Hainan being a large island of China. Many Hainanese ventured into Southeast Asia during the hey day of the British Empire. A lot of them worked as cooks (and tailors) in commonwealth cities and aboard British merchant ships where they encounted a thing called jam on toast. Over time, they invented their own ‘jam’, which became Kaya. That’s the reason you won’t find Kaya (or Hainanese Chicken Rice or Hainanese Pork Chop to name a few more examples) anywhere in Hainan today, they were invented by overseas Hainanese. The term Kaya was probably coined by the Malays, who refer to it as Seri Kaya. Hainanese Kaya is made with brown sugar which results in its distinct orangy colour. Some modern commercial formulations use honey instead.
There is another version of Kaya that is green; this is called Nonya Kaya (bottle No.2). How did this originate? Its another complicated story, also related to the Chinese migrants. When early Chinese migrants inter-married with the locals in Malaysia, they formed a sub-community called the Nonya. The Nonya add pandan leaves to a lot of their cuisine and when they learnt to make Kaya, they also added pandan to that. Their varierty of Kaya uses white sugar, but compensates for the loss of the caramelized taste by adding the juice from pandan leaves. This gives Nonya Kaya its unique flavour and fragrance. Commercially, food dye is added to Nonya Kaya (bottle No.3) to give it a darker green colour. Nowadays you can also get a hybrid Kaya (bottle No.4) that is made with both brown sugar and pandan leaves.
Besides spreading it on toast, how else can Kaya be used? Being very sweet, Kaya goes very well with salted butter and you can use it in place of syrup or icing sugar on pancakes, waffles and french toast. Kaya also works well as a filling in a Danish type pastry (for example you could replace the sesame paste of my Sesame Swirl Puffs with Kaya). Finally you can experiment with Kaya in those savoury dishes that require a touch of sweetness, such as in pan fried foie gras.