Lady Wong, a kuih and pastry shop located in New York City’s East Village, started as a pandemic project. Homesick for traditional Malay and Singaporean sweets, pastry chef Seleste Tan baked trays of pineapple cookies at home and gave them away to neighbors. When people came knocking on her door asking for more, the seed of this idea grew and Tan, along with her husband, chef Mogan Anthony, opened Lady Wong in the winter of 2021. While the bakery makes cakes and verrines flavored with gula melaka, pandan, and passionfruit, it’s the delicate and intricate kuih that draw most customers in. Kuih are bite-size snacks and desserts found across parts of Southeast Asia, China, and Brunei, characterized by their typical use of coconut for flavor and fat, and a starch—rice, wheat, or tapioca flour—for structure.
This rose-scented kuih lapis (lapis translates to “layers”) is popular in the Malay community, served either as an evening snack or for breakfast and making an appearance at weddings and other special events.
Kuih may be made with all rice flour, just wheat flour, or entirely with tapioca starch (as it often is in Singapore). At Lady Wong, they use a combination of all three to strike the perfect textural balance of wobbly, chewy, creamy, and springy.
Stick to Thai or Vietnamese brands of rice flour and tapioca starch to replicate the texture of the kuih at Lady Wong. Rice (and its starch content) varies between countries and a Japanese or Indian rice flour might provide different results. Same deal with the coconut milk—seek out Thai or Vietnamese brands as they tend to be thicker, creamier, and better emulsified. If you can’t find fresh or frozen pandan leaves to infuse the coconut milk with, simply substitute with vanilla extract. Anthony warns you away from using clear pandan extract, which tends to impart unpleasantly sharp alcohol-tinged notes to the kuih. If your rose syrup is very pale out of the bottle, the suggested food coloring will go a long way to creating sharp and clear color contrast between the layers.
Using a measured quantity of batter per layer and setting a timer promises precise bands of color that don’t bleed into each other. Steaming the kuih is perhaps the hardest part of the entire process. Waiting patiently for each layer to cook can feel interminable when you want a slippery slice of kuih right this very moment—consider it your day’s meditation. Thinner layers cook quickly but require more stir-pour action, while two or three thick layers might seem simpler but take significantly longer to cook through. The six layers suggested in this recipe are a good balance between achievable and artsy (Lady Wong usually does 57 layers).