It had been a long day, a truly long one, as I bustled about the kitchen, hopping from one task to another in the flurried attempt to make more than one dessert and main dish just so I could use up as much as I could of the contents in my pantry. I had wilted the banana leaves the day before, and that in itself was a tedious task I temporarily vow never to undertake in the near future, though my mother’s discovery of a more convenient and unback-breaking method of wilting the banana leaves is somewhat giving me second thoughts. But thoughts I will not entertain for now, for the sake of my well being and temporary sanity.
As you can see from my attempts at crimping the edges of Karipap, my fingers are not bestowed with the skills needed to produce refined fingerwork. I have tried to make this banana leaf wrapped dessert years ago, when my craving for it pushed me to purchase frozen banana leaves, a cylindrical block of palm sugar, a packet of glutinous rice flour (also known as sweet rice flour), unsweetened grated coconut, and coconut milk, all ingredients I was not familiar with, well except for the cans of coconut milk.
With the abundance of street hawker stalls lining the streets of Kuala Lumpur, selling all kinds of Malaysian delicacies, one is naturally not inclined to produce the very same delicacies at home. Well, at least not if one was as deftly challenged as I am. It was in that condition that I was flown to the United States. A poor condition indeed. No culinary skills whatsoever. Though I have to say, the fact that I possessed no culinary skills whatsoever, coupled with the fact that I was on foreign soil with patriotic taste buds, pushed me to seek those culinary skills. And seek them I did. Experience in the kitchen is key to attaining higher level culinary skills, as I was to find out years later.
May I state that most recipes for Malaysian food items are unreliable? At least that was what I concluded after ravenous searches both online and offline, followed by excitement and active salivary glands. Rolling up my sleeves in anticipation of devouring familiar desserts and savories, I would dutifully follow the instructions in the recipes. And may I also add that sometimes, the measurements are just plain dumb? 2 mugs of this. What capacity mug? Is there a standard mug with which to measure by, that every household should have? Though, in all fairness I have to also admit that there were just some lingo (in Malay) that was alien to me, much like dredge or julienne might be alien to native English speakers who are not culinary experts. Those alien terms were sometimes the cause of the demise of my homesick kitchen experiments.
My first try at making Kuih Koci resulted in misshapen blobs of steamed glutinous rice dough, encasing, or should I say, leaking, fillings of grated coconut sweetened in palm sugar wrapped in stiff banana leaves with exposed cracks along the leaf fibers. I don’t even remember the sheer joy of biting into an ugly Kuih Koci, for there were times when the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ holds true for ugly culinary concoctions. But this was no such ugly culinary concoction. So disappointing it was that I gave up ever trying to make this dessert for years.
In fact, I pretty much gave up trying to reproduce any other Malaysian culinary delights for years to come because the ugly and floppy results just increased my misery, homesickness, and abhorrence for Malaysian recipes. I plunged fully into trying my hands at western desserts.
Ahh…in these I found my calling. My fingers, which had failed me before, were not called upon for duty as much, but my wrist and brain power were. After years of attaining amateurish mastery of cake decorating, I felt compelled to give the Malaysian desserts and savories another try. Alas, my taste buds are purely and loyally Malaysian. No amount of distance from my home country would make me switch over to foreign food for long. I still need my Malaysian food.
So try again I did. By then, I had gained more culinary knowledge as well, and I was better able to pinpoint the cause of my failures (aside from blaming the recipes themselves). I realized that my failure lies in the banana leaves. I didn’t soften them enough. So when I tried to wrap those white balls of dough, they cracked and resisted my folding and tucking.
What actually stirred me to action were photos of this dessert on Facebook. A friend had made it at home (she’s on foreign soil too). I asked her how she managed to wrap the stubborn and stiff banana leaves around those balls of dough. She said she wilted them over a steady flame. I remember reading the instructions on wilting banana leaves before. I vaguely remember the mention of holding the leaves over a steady flame, and I remember dismissing it as being too tedious and illogical. I also remember reading somewhere that you could also blanch them in boiling water, which seemed more convenient to me. So that was what I did, which obviously resulted in banana leaves that were still stiff and ‘fresh’. Now, older and wiser, I decided to give the flaming a try, as tedious as it sounds, because, truth be told, I have been craving Kuih Koci for years ever since that first floppy disappointment.
I sat on my four legged kitchen stool at the table, on which there was a lighter, a candle, and a scattered pile of banana leaves cut to size, both circles and squares. I thought to myself,
If I fail this time, that’s it…Kuih Koci will just have to be a forever forgotten dessert.
And maybe, because of that line of thinking, I really made sure I did my best. There’s nothing like the threat of forgoing a loved food item forever to make you go all out to reproduce it. With determination, I remained seated on the stool that seemed to grow uncomfortably harder by the minute, and held the cut banana leaves one by one over the flame. Cautiously, I moved the leaves such that every inch of it was devoured by the heat of the flame. At times, the flame would leap, as if trying to lick the leaf, held at right angle to it. But for most of the process, I watched, with the fascination of an entranced child, the slight darkening and softening of the leaf fibers, beginning with a prominent spot that expanded outwards, much like the spreading of an inkblot. Unfortunately, even that fascination wasn’t able to quell my growing irritation and impatience at having to repeat the process assembly-line style until all the cut banana leaves were wilted. My thoughts at the time jogged along jagged line,
I’m never doing this again! I don’t want to see a banana leaf ever!
By the time I was done, I had had enough of banana leaves, candles, and crazy, tedious Malaysian desserts. I stacked the wilted leaves in a stainless steel bowl, covered it, and called it a day. I couldn’t bring myself to continue on to the next step.
The next day, I had more dishes to cook in that continued pursuit to empty my pantry, and by the time I was done, my energy level and enthusiasm in finishing what I started was dangerously low. But as I eyed the stack of banana leaves I had so painstakingly wilted, I knew I had to try it. Plus, there was my darned patriotic taste buds, telling my brain to convince my limbs to carry it all the way through.
With careless abandon, I dumped the glutinous rice flour in my 4 quart Kitchen Aid stainless steel bowl, thinking I would just pour enough coconut milk to make a workable dough. No measurements, though I did holler,
“Google Kuih Koci for me please!”
to whoever was propped up in front of the computer, which happened to be hubby. Google he did, and just as tediously, he read the ingredients and method one by one, at such an irritating pace that once I got what I wanted to know, I cut him off.
Thankfully, the dough was pretty easy to make, and I did come up with a workable one. I had already made the sweet filling earlier. It was easy enough. Melt some chunks of palm sugar in water, dump in the unsweetened grated coconut, and stir till the grated coconut has absorbed all the sweet brown liquid. Then came the step that intimidated me a little, for it required the use of my clumsy fingers, that have always failed me whenever there comes a need to completely enclose some kind of filling in some kind of dough. I always managed to put too much filling such that complete sealing becomes impossible, or, messy.
I suppose, experience and skills stayed close to me that day, not to mention Allah’s help, for I pretty much breezed through that stage, happily pinching off balls of white dough, rolling them into balls, flattening them into small disks, and filling them with just enough filling before pulling up the edges and ending up with filled balls that didn’t threaten to sputter their fillings out. And those wilted banana leaves. Ahh…it was worth it! They were a pleasure to work with, bending and folding subserviently to my every tuck, making me feel like the most dexterous person ever! Despite the arduous day of working non stop in the kitchen from morning, I found myself smiling and even humming while my hands churned out little tiny green pyramids that grew in numbers.
Next came the steaming, which was the last step, the step that stood between me and my fate with Kuih Koci. All that work, and if it still didn’t turn out okay, I would have bawled my eyes out, and leave my family in the wake of my journey to insanity. As it turned out, Allah had decreed that part of my provision for that day, was to eat Kuih Koci, for when I clicked open my rice cooker, which was steaming furiously, my sight was filled of little pyramids that seemed to have lost the dark fresh green shade and turned a wilted moss green. Gingerly, knowing full well that steam is hotter than fire, I took one of those pyramids out with a tong. Like a birthday child surrounded by multitudes of birthday presents, I clumsily unwrapped my pyramid to reveal a glistening white pyramid, which I immediately bit into.
Glutinously hot and chewy, with richness from the coconut milk, it filled my mouth with a desire to munch and chew like one does with an expanding bubble gum. And as my taste buds were teased with the chewy texture and richness of coconut milk from the steamed dough, the sweet and moist filling made its grand entrance, introducing a different kind of texture and taste. The finely grated coconut, having absorbed the melted palm sugar, still possessed a crunchiness, a moist one, if you will, that complements the chewiness and full blandness of the steamed encasing dough. After a delightful gulp, I was enamored by the whole experience of Kuih Koci and fished out another steamed green pyramid from my rice cooker.
Bliss. Pure bliss. It was late afternoon. The golden rays of the descending sun was streaming through my kitchen window, perfect for a food photo shoot. My work table was still littered with scattered banana leaves and unwashed kitchen utensils, yet there I was sitting on my stool, popping one Kuih Koci after another into my mouth, savoring every chew and gulp. The banana leaves, my nemesis. With the will of Allah, I have conquered thee.