Kaya Toast Recipe

Why It Works

  • Straining the custard before and after cooking produces the smoothest kaya possible.
  • Using coconut cream gives the kaya a rich nuttiness that mimics the buttery mouthfeel of fresh coconut milk.

Toast slathered with butter and jam is a quick, delicious breakfast for many around the world. In Malaysia, where I live, as well as in Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, one of the most popular jams is a little more tropical: a coconut-based spread known locally as kaya, a rich condiment made from cooking eggs, sugar, and coconut cream until caramelized. To make a sturdy breakfast called kaya toast, people spread the jam onto white bread, top it with generous pats of butter, and sandwich it with another slice of bread.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

In many Southeast Asian towns and cities with a significant Chinese population, breakfast typically takes place in unassuming shoplots dubbed ”kopitiam,” a portmanteau of the word ”kop’i” (Bahasa Indonesian for ”coffee”) and ”tiam” (Hokkien Chinese, a dialect spoken in southern China and in Southeast Asia, for ”shop”). Since the mid-17th century, there have been several waves of Chinese migration into Southeast Asia. The Hainanese were one of the last ethnic Chinese groups—after the Hokkiens, Hakkas, Teochews, Cantonese, among many others—to make their way over. By the time the Hainanese arrived in the region in the 1920s, the other Chinese communities had already established themselves as business merchants or workers in mining and construction. The Hainanese turned to the service industry, filling the roles of cooks for British colonists and opening coffee shops at trading posts, such as the legendary Yut Kee Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Opened in 1928, the restaurant is known for their Hainanese-western menu, and is especially famous for their chicken chop, roti babi (mince pork-stuffed bread) and kaya toast. 

“Kaya toast has always been on the menu, right from the beginning when my grandfather opened Yut Kee in 1928,” says Mervyn Lee, who runs the restaurant today. Traditionally, cooks grilled slices of white bread over charcoal, which is still how it’s done today. Today, diners with a sweet tooth continue to delight in kaya toast with cold slabs of butter, while those who prefer a savory breakfast enjoy their toast with soft-boiled eggs seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper. Some folks even enjoy a combination of both, dipping their kaya sandwich into the runny eggs.

Serious Eats/ Michelle Yip

Asked about the chilled slabs of butter that are so essential to kaya toast and why the dairy’s temperature is so crucial, Mervyn says that it is simply more practical. “Butter at room temperature would melt, plus spreading butter on the bread would add to the assembly process,” he tells me. “It was easier to just have slices of butter cold in the fridge, ready to go when orders came in.” The fat of the dairy also helps to balance the sweetness of the kaya.

Serious Eats / Kaya Toast

All About Kaya

Kaya has many origin stories. Some, like Nyonya cookbook author Sharon Wee, suspect that kaya  descended from sericaia, a sweet egg custard Portuguese colonizers brought over in the 16th century.  Others, however, speculate that it’s the other way around: that it was Malaysian serikaya—which was already being served in royal Malay households when the Portuguese arrived—that inspired sericaia.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Regardless of how kaya came about, the National Library of Singapore credits Hainanese cooks and kopitiam with popularizing the condiment. Besides kaya toast, the spread is popular as a filling or topping for many desserts like kaya puffs (flaky pastry filled with kaya), pulut tekan (a Nyonya kuih made with cooked glutinous rice), and even drizzled on waffles or as an ice cream flavor. It also makes for a thoughtful, delicious homemade gift.

Though the word ”kaya” is often translated to ”coconut jam,” it is closer to a curd or custard, both in its texture and how it’s made. To make kaya, you whisk eggs, sugar, and coconut milk and/or cream together, then cook it low and slow over a double-boiler to achieve a smooth, spreadable consistency. As with any type of custard, it’s important to cook the mixture over very low heat so the egg proteins coagulate just enough and create a velvety, thick mixture instead of becoming sweet scrambled eggs.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Pandan leaves are a popular addition to kaya and are frequently used in the popular Nyonya version of the jam, which is sweetened with palm sugar instead of regular sugar. The leaves lend a pleasantly grassy, floral scent that complements the coconut’s richness, but purists often say the leaf’s verdant aroma detracts from the real star of kaya: the coconut itself.

Creating the Perfect Kaya

I set out to see how much I could play with the ratios of eggs to sugar to coconut to achieve a kaya with a runny but stable texture, wasn’t tooth-achingly sweet, and would highlight the coconut’s flavor as much as possible. Many recipes call for proportions that are closer to equal parts of eggs, sugar, and coconut, and that’s what I started with. I knew, however, that I wanted to focus on the coconut flavor instead of the egg. I opted for whole eggs instead of just yolks; while kaya is traditionally made with just yolks, I wanted to give the spread more structure, and the additional protein from the egg whites helps the custard further set.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

The texture of these initial batches were satisfyingly smooth, but still much too eggy and sweet. With that in mind, I gradually decreased the amount of eggs until it was half the weight of the coconut cream, which  lent the kaya a loose but supple texture and allowed the coconut’s flavor to shine through. Using slightly less sugar meant that the jam wasn’t cloying—just sweet enough to lend deep butterscotch notes to complement the coconut’s richness. Some of kaya’s deep flavor and color comes from a caramel that’s incorporated towards the end, and I found that caramelizing just 20% of the sugar was the sweet spot for me. Some kaya makers, though, opt for caramelizing higher percentages of the sugar for a darker and smokier kaya.

This recipe is inspired by the beloved kaya toasts made across Southeast Asia. A local white bread called “roti benggali,” a tall loaf with a fluffy interior, is commonly used to make the sandwich. But if you can’t find roti benggali, regular sandwich bread—think Wonder Bread and the like—works just fine. As for the butter, I recommend using salted butter or sprinkling a pinch of flaky salt over the kaya before closing your sandwich. This helps counter the sweetness of the kaya and adds a touch of complexity to the flavor.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

While you could get yourself a perfectly nice jar of kaya from the nearest Southeast Asian supermarket, it’s very doable and satisfying to make at home. In less than an hour, you could have a whole batch of kaya made, ready to see you through several weeks—or several days, if your household is like mine—of breakfasts and snacks. You’ll run out of kaya before you know it, which is just fine, because now you can just make another batch.

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