Picture the scene. It is 2008 and H, H Snr and I are gathered together in the Newton Food Court, Melaka, Malaysia. It is a hot and sweaty lunchtime, and I have just eaten a large plate of crispy pork. H and I amble over to a kuih stand (kuih being a term for small snacks, often sweet but not always) and purchase a selection which we take back to the table.
H Snr glances over the plate and his face lights up at the sight of some small, green, coconut-covered balls. “Onde-onde!” he declares with delight, as he eats one with evident enjoyment. Apparently these were a favourite snack from his time working in Malaysia, so we hustled back and bought a load more.
Onde-onde are made from pandan-flavoured glutinous rice flour, and are filled with syrupy gula melaka and coated with coconut. The burst of liquid sweetness as you bite into one is a delicious sensation, and it was easy to see why they were so popular with H’s dad.
I tried making them in the UK and had some success, though the palm sugar was not melted enough, the balls were a little large and I couldn’t find fresh coconut at the time so had used desiccated. Close, but no cigar.
On our return to Malaysia this year, I wanted to have the real thing again, and figured I would happen across flotillas of kuih stands laden to the hilt with pyramids of onde-onde (pronounced roughly “oyundy oyundy”). It turns out things aren’t that easy, and thus began my quest for kuih.
The first kuih encounter was at the Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman Saturday night market in Kuala Lumpur. A large stall was covered with trays of beautifully-coloured jellies, things topped with coconut and items of baffling shape and texture.
No onde-onde, but we purchased a couple of random cubes for later consumption.
I find a lot of this type of kuih quite bland. Gelatinous is the most popular texture, and the flavours are normally subtle, even when multiple layers are used. Plus sugar usage can be low, which does my sweet tooth no favours.
The coconut often tastes a little salty too, and I’m not sure if that is due to my defective taste buds or a Malaysian fondness for salted coconut.
At the same market we encountered an entirely different type of kuih, the deep-fried kuih peniaram kedah.
The taste bore a startling resemblance to the fatty base of a British lardy cake. Very delicious but after two or so, I felt a bit green.
We had another try at the Mid Valley Megamall, where a stall sitting in an internal thoroughfare had, in 2008, provided us with another taste of onde-onde.
We found the stall but the lady had sold out, and I felt too full after my curry puff to try something new.
We relocated to Penang but our luck continued to desert us.
I searched online, but without a car some of the more distant food courts were tricky to reach. I found an article about Kuih Nyonya Moh Teng Pheow and we visited twice. The first time we were too early, the second time too late (assuming they would have had onde-onde in the first place, as we didn’t get as far as establishing that).
While loitering outside Ming Xiang Tai I noticed a lady on a moped delivering boxes of kuih to a nearby restaurant. Alas no onde-onde, but I bought the two cuboids below, which combined pandan and gula melaka flavours with a dusting of coconut.
This was our last Malaysian kuih as I decided we had devoted enough time to the search and it was starting to make me irritable!
A few days later we flew from Penang to Hong Kong, staying in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon. One afternoon, while weaving between pedestrians on a Granville Road pavement, we passed an Indonesian restaurant which had a small inset porch that was home to a cabinet laden with sweets.
One of these sweets bore a remarkable resemblance to onde-onde, but was labelled kelepon. Out of curiosity we purchased a packet and after H had taken a pic in our hotel room, I popped one into my mouth.
To me, it tasted exactly like an onde-onde. Some ensuing research indicated that they are essentially the same thing, so my quest had an unexpectedly happy ending on the streets of Hong Kong.
So was it worth it? Well to tell you the truth, the kelepon were very nice, but not totally earth-shattering. I think by this point, though, nothing could have lived up to the amount of energy devoted into obtaining it, and the thrill of the chase sometimes outweighs the triumph of the catch.