Glee seeps into chef Damian D’Silva’s voice as he describes the breakfast that defined his childhood. “I would sit in anticipation of this man riding his bicycle,” he recalls of those early mornings, waiting for fresh bread to be delivered from a neighborhood Indian Muslim bakery in his native Singapore. When the warm loaves arrived, D’Silva would slice into one and smear the bread generously with salty butter and heaping spoonfuls of his grandparents’ homemade kaya, a sweet, velvety condiment with a pleasant coconut flavor and pandan fragrance. The butter would melt and the kaya would ooze into the crispy, still-steaming bread. “It was the most amazing meal for me, you know? I just loved it.”
It’s hard to visualize the 66-year-old, 6 foot 2 Singaporean chef as a little boy, but I can certainly imagine the delight the luscious jam could spark in a child. A popular food in the cultures of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and other Southeast Asian countries, kaya requires multiple eggs, ample coconut cream, and many spoonfuls of sugar, stirred slowly over low heat to achieve the rich, gooey texture and ambrosial aroma that make the spread a morning favorite.
Thoughts differ around the exact time and place of kaya’s origins (many believe its earliest roots date back to 16th-century Malaysia or Indonesia, and some ascribe influence to Portuguese colonialism), but there’s one thing everyone can agree on: making it from scratch is a test in patience, and the ultimate expression of care for anyone whose love language is feeding others. D’Silva, who owns the Singaporean restaurant Rempapa, vividly recalls his grandfather standing over a charcoal stove and stirring the mixture constantly as it cooked, to ensure the eggs didn’t curdle. Recipe developer and cookbook co-author Evonne Lyn Lee remembers her mother painstakingly squeezing milk from fresh coconuts and collecting eggs from the backyard chicken coop just to make a single batch. “It was such a treat,” says Lee, noting that store-bought versions weren’t common when she was growing up. “The [scent] of kaya lingered for the rest of the day.” Kyo Pang, who owns the Malaysian-style eatery Kopitiam in New York City, first learned how to make the jam from her grandmother in Pang’s native Penang, where they would pick fresh pandan leaves from their family garden. As Pang recalls, after she moved to New York City, “the thing that I would think about most was kaya.”
For how many people share similar memories of the dish, part of the magic of kaya is that “there are many strains and many species of it,” says cookbook author and food writer Christopher Tan. Many families like to add herbaceous pandan leaves, a tropical ingredient which infuses the kaya with a nutty scent, but they do it in different ways, dictated by regional variations and personal preferences. Some drop them into the mixture whole to release their fragrance before removing them, while others pound them to extract the juice and imbue the kaya with a verdant hue. Some opt for palm sugar, while another permutation often associated with the Hainanese community calls for caramelized sugar, which lends the jam a brown shade. Peranakans, a mixed-race community descended from early Chinese migrants and local Southeast Asians in the Indonesian archipelago, often steam theirs, resulting in a custard-like kaya that is “much more solid and firmly set, which you can actually slice,” explains Tan. Cooks also steam the mixture in Thailand—sometimes inside a pumpkin with the seeds scooped out.
The most straightforward way of enjoying the jam, though, is perhaps also the most common today. Kaya toast likely originated when immigrants from the Chinese island of Hainan who settled in Southeast Asia found work as cooks in British households, where they picked up culinary techniques like Western-style baking. Many went on to open kopitiams, or coffee shops, where they popularized kaya-topped bread as a tasty and convenient breakfast. “To me, it’s a real blend of the British culture into our lives,” observes Violet Oon, the Singaporean chef behind the eponymous restaurant National Kitchen by Violet Oon. The meal remains an essential part of Southeast Asia’s breakfast culture and kopitiam scene today. Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a Singaporean chain that first launched in the 1940s as a humble coffee stall, devotes much of its short menu to multiple iterations of its namesake dish. Some include peanut butter, others cheese; all come with sliced butter and generous schmears of kaya on crunchy bread. A full order also includes runny soft-boiled eggs, cooked so mildly that they’re practically soupy, then seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper.
Given the now-widespread availability of jarred kaya in grocery stores and from artisanal brands, not to mention the ubiquity of kopitiams (of which few still produce their own kaya in-house), a veil of nostalgia seems to envelop the bygone era when the only way to have the coconutty jam at home was to make it by hand. “I think anyone younger than me would probably be most familiar with it as a convenience product,” says Tan, who is 49. Even though a batch of kaya with 48 eggs takes D’Silva four-and-a-half hours to cook, he continues to make it at his restaurant Rempapa every so often: “It's about selling people a piece of Singapore's cultural history.”
Tan points out, though, that if ever there was an apt time for traditional hand-churned kaya to see a resurgence, it’s now: people are continuing to return to home cooking in the wake of rising food costs and the pandemic, and he’s already noticed some households selling their own homemade kaya online. The spread is also increasingly making a name for itself overseas. San Francisco bakery Breadbelly gained a cult following for its kaya toast, with green jam decorating the bread in signature squiggles. The dish is also a popular order at Kopitiam, Pang’s restaurant serving Malaysian-style coffee-shop fare. In 2020, Killiney Kopitiam, a chain with more than a century’s history in Singapore, brought its kaya toast to the U.S. for the first time with a Palo Alto, California location, and is now planning a Bay Area expansion. And eateries around the world are increasingly adopting the spread in nontraditional ways: in Paris, Asian-inspired canteen The Hood offers kaya alongside mantou, or Chinese-style steamed wheat buns, while Melbourne’s LuxBite bakery works it into layered sponge cakes and macarons.
Whether homemade or store-bought, on toast or in pastries, kaya remains a nexus for the childhood memories of many Southeast Asians who are far from home. “Every so often, when I’m really homesick, I’ll make myself soft-boiled eggs, crack open a jar of kaya, and spread it on toast,” says Malaysia-born, New York City-based content creator Samantha Chong, whose mother is fond of the spread. “It brings me a little bit of comfort to know I’m eating something that she loves.”