Sunday, January 23, 2022

The disappearing appreciation of the humble kuih

A dwindling interest from the younger generation and the emergence of trendy Western desserts is pushing kuih out of the picture.

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Every day, 57-year-old Rozi wakes up at 3am, forcing herself past the first aches of old age and into the kitchen to start preparing the ingredients for nasi lemak and an assortment of traditional Malay kuih.

She began her small business three years ago, running a roadside stall outside her apartment building in Putra Perdana Puchong.

Rozi is one of a dwindling number of “makciks” and “aunties” who still hand make traditional kuih. She learnt how to do this from her mother, but fears that the cycle may end with her generation.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said not many young people appear interested in making, or even eating, such food anymore.

The older generation, on the other hand, still order kuih from her, especially for special occasions or family gatherings.

“The demand for quality Malay kuih is still prevalent, but in cities like Kuala Lumpur we don’t get much demand from young people as they prefer fried or fast food,” she said.

Twenty-four-year-old Ahmad Azfar who lives in Kampung Kerayong Klang agreed, saying he could find many kuih stalls in his housing area but far fewer in cities.

“Most of the sellers are middle-aged women,” he said. “I have never seen any young kuih sellers.”

Azfar himself loves kuih and often helps his mother make the traditional cakes and cookies at home.

“Every type of kuih has its own unique taste and is a cultural symbol through food,” he said.

“I think young people should preserve this knowledge because it is part of our cultural inheritance.”

Mohd Adly Rizal, CEO of FriedChillies Media which recently launched an initiative called Projek Kuih Warisan Ihsan Haridepan, said young people these days are generally more interested in Western desserts than in their own heritage.

This is especially due to so-called dessert trends, which have increasingly nudged traditional fare such as kuih out of the picture.

“Youngsters are still interested in learning about kuih but there is less interest as there is much more information available on Western desserts than on kuih,” he said.

His project, funded by Yayasan Hasanah and the finance ministry, collects old recipes and cooking tips from all over the country and shares them with participants who range from schoolchildren to university graduates at culinary schools.

Still, concern remains over the future of kuih in the country.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Adly said many people appear more willing to spend on cake than they are on kuih.

“A slice of cheesecake costs about RM12 but kuih talam only costs RM0.50 despite the fact that it requires more skill to produce than cheesecake and uses more natural ingredients,” he said.

With the increase in price of ingredients, he estimates that a good piece of kuih these days costs about RM1.50 – “if you want all the ingredients to be natural and authentic.”

“Kuih makers can make really good kuih, but Malaysians must be willing to pay for the time and quality that goes into making it.”

The rising cost of goods is a problem that Rozi knows only too well. Still, she tries her best to maintain her current price level which is RM0.50 for a piece of kuih and RM1 for a packet of nasi lemak.

“I refuse to raise the price unless I receive a big order for a special occasion, since we would also need to include the price of packaging,” she said.

Usually, she can make about RM1,000 a month.

“Business has been getting better since we learnt how to market our kuih online,” she added.

Although kuih-making is a long and tedious process, Rozi has no intention of quitting any time soon. In fact, she is trying to learn more about it and how to improve her online skills.

Her hope, as she struggles out of bed each morning, is that the kuih industry in Malaysia will remain alive in the generations to come.

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