So here’s a truth: Loving yourself is not self indulgent. It is highly necessary for survival and the preservation of your sanity.
Let’s be honest. Despite all those lovely advertising campaigns out there (The Dove campaign comes to mind) about loving ourselves, how many of us sometimes feel that our family, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, friends, children, job, colleagues, (insert random person or situation here), even the clogged kitchen sink sometimes comes ahead of us and our needs?
I find that this is a fairly common affliction among women, especially Asian women; we are brought up to take care of everyone first, before we even think about our needs and our wants. To do so would be – dare I say it? – selfish.
But here’s the thing: remember those airplane safety instructions about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you do it for the baby? That’s because if you don’t slip the mask on first, you’re no good to anyone. By the very same principle, if we don’t love ourselves first, put ourselves first, we are no good to anyone.
Why do I bring this up? Because for most of my life, it’s always been someone else first. Take care of the family, support the parents, save the world, meet the KPIs of the company, look after my colleagues and subordinates, be there for my friends… and the list goes on.
Four months ago, burnt out, empty, blank and aimless, I realised something: I didn’t like what I had become. Never mind loving myself, I wasn’t even close to liking the me then. On the outside, everything seemed fine. I was “taking a break”, “chilling”, “enjoying life”. The reality was, in looking for external validation, I had in many ways, lost myself and my direction.
How does this relate to starting up Straits Heritage Foods, you ask?
My answer: Making nyonya kaya. When I came home from my parents’ place that evening, I realised I really, really wanted kaya. I realised much later that it wasn’t just kaya I wanted, it was what it meant to me. Kaya was happiness, a childhood with my grandmother who loved me, who made me a snack when I was hungry, when I enjoyed the present and was not touched by worries about the future, when I wasn’t always busy looking out for someone.
So I set about making kaya. This is the basic recipe for making kaya:
Five eggs – ideally kampung eggs, none of that selenium, omega-enriched stuff you get these days
Santan or coconut cream – I prefer to squeeze my own santan from freshly grated coconut. There’s something soothing about squeezing the life out of something that can’t fight back. No, it’s not the homicidal instincts peeking out, it’s anger management therapy at work. Ideally, just use the first pressing or ibu santan, also known as santan kental among the Peranakans.
Sugar – Most recipes will call for at least 300gms of white sugar. I prefer it a little less sweet, so I go for about 240gms. You can also use coarse grained sugar.
Pandan leaves or screwpine, in English.
Salt – To marry all the flavours together. The bibiks (Bibik means auntie, an honorific of sorts for a female elder among the Peranakans) will tell you, “agak-agak secubit cukup, ya”, – roughly, a pinch will do.
And that’s it. Those are the ingredients for a basic kaya. Simple enough. Ah yes, there’s one more. Love. No, really, I believe food needs to be cooked with feeling, with heart, with passion. Otherwise, there’s no point. But more of that in another post.
Crack the eggs. Here’s a tip: If you’re using kampung or free range eggs, crack them one at a time in a separate bowl to ensure that they’re still good. Real kampung eggs, when you get them should still have a little bit of chicken crap or bit of feather stuck to it, you can never get them too clean. If the tray is too clean, it’s from a layer farm.
Prep the pandan leaves. Separate the pandan leaves into two bunches. The first bunch, chop roughly and pulverise in a blender. I prefer to use a mortar and pestle. It’s old school but again, the elbow grease and energy used, I like to think of it as exercise as well as an infusion of my energy into the food. This should roughly bruise them. Add a little water to make the blending or pounding easier. After that, stick the paste into a strainer and squeeze with a spoon. That’s your pandan essence and what makes the kaya green. The remaining leaves, tie them into a knot.
Prep the double boiler. It can just be a pot of water over the stove that you can fit a bowl comfortably on top of, no need for fancypants equipment, really.
While waiting for the water to boil, whip the eggs. Add the sugar in slowly. After the sugar has dissolved, add the santan. Pour it in slowly, so that it is well incorporated, as you whisk it in. Hand blenders are awesome. Definitely, a piece of must-have equipment in the kitchen.
Once all the ingredients are well whipped, check the fire, ensure that the water is boiling, lower the fire to about half so the water is simmering, not boiling madly.
Stick the bowl of whisked ingredients on top of the boiling pot of water. Add in the knot of pandan leaves. I usually separate the bunches into two or three knots as I believe this better infuses the mixture with that sweet smell of pandan.
Start stirring. The first 15 minutes or so, stir constantly. Remember that there are eggs involved so you don’t want to have coconut flavoured scrambled eggs. I prefer to use a whisk during this period, it keeps the air going in and makes the kaya lighter, instead of heavy and kind of claggy.
After it starts getting thicker, you can leave it for a bit, five minutes of so each time (this is when I start cleaning up the kitchen and washing up). But continue stirring until it starts to thicken and becomes custard-like first. Then it’s time to add the essence of pandan. Stir as you trickle in the pandan juice. Depending on the yield of essence, your custard should start turning a little olive green. As you continue stirring, the green might get darker, as the colour of the leaves in the bowl leach into the mixture.
By now, you should have the smell of warm coconut and pandan wafting through the kitchen, if not the house. Continue stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens further. Add your half teaspoon of salt, about now. All in all, it should take about 45 minutes to an hour. Yes, that’s a lot of stirring. But it is therapeutic to watch the mixture change from that watery stuff into warm, green, thick, gooey, comfort food. It’s like being a part of an alchemical process, it’s practically magic happening before your eyes.
Start checking on the thickness. Once it starts dripping slowly off the whisk, or coats the back of a spoon thickly, you’re done. Lift it off the fire and let it cool. It will thicken further as it cools. It might take a couple of tries before you get the smooth consistency.
Once done, your nyonya kaya should look approximately like this:
Here’s the best part about making it – you get to give it away. Because after more than two hours literally stirring the pot over the hot stove, the last thing you want to do is eat the stuff. Also, you’ve probably made about 350 to 400gms of kaya and that’s a lot for one person. Having said that, there’s nothing like warm, fresh kaya on hot toast with butter. It makes for a lovely late night snack.
I usually start my kaya making process late, about midnight, when the rest of the world has turned in. There’s something therapeutic and soul-soothing in stirring up magic at midnight. During that time, my mind wanders, and as I am prepping and stirring, I look internally, think about whom I would like to gift this concoction to, ruminate over what I’ve done well, what I have learnt, wonder where my life’s journey will take me, think a little about a lot and think a lot about a little.
So yes, as small and innocuous as it sounds, making kaya started me thinking about my life’s journey again and where I’m heading. You know what they say that it’s about the journey, not the destination. But then again, maybe, just maybe, this new journey IS my destination. If that makes any sense.
In the meantime, have a good Monday and a good week.
p/s: Of course, if you are now craving nyonya kaya but don’t feel like putting in the couple of hours and the few tries to get it right, please head over to the Straits Heritage Foods FB page and order some.