After more than two decades of life as a homemaker in the United States, Veronica Gan found herself missing the food of her hometown, Kuala Lumpur. “At home, I tried to learn how to make Malaysian desserts,” she recalls. Over the years, she had picked up techniques from YouTube videos, old cookbooks, and from asking relatives for tips. Before long, she began bringing her homemade sweets to friends. “More and more people liked them, so I thought maybe I could open a store.”
In February 2020, just one month before the COVID-19 pandemic brought New York’s restaurant business to a near halt, Gan opened the shoebox-sized Kuih Café near the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Despite the rather challenging circumstances, Gan managed to keep her business afloat. Three days a week, she would fill the glass display case with an assortment of Malaysian sweets, all made by hand on the premises in the shop’s small kitchen.
“We’re only open for three days because I want to keep my desserts fresh,” Gan explains. On weekdays, foot traffic to the area is too low. “Also, I have no helpers. It’s just me here and my husband, who comes in on weekends.”
Gan is something of a perfectionist. The menu rotates every week, but might include a mini-burnt Basque-style cheesecake with prized Sultan durians imported from Malaysia, or a matcha cheesecake, which owes its emerald hue to ceremonial-grade matcha straight from Japan and its restrained sweetness to the red beans Gan makes in-house. “It takes a long time, but the ones in the cans are too sweet and have preservatives,” Gan says.
The same is true for the pineapple in the mini-burnt cheesecakes, which tastes like the pineapple cookies Gan remembers from her homeland. “We grill fresh pineapple then we cook with the spices like cinnamon and cloves for a few hours in the wok,” she says. There are no duds among these desserts, but the real star here may be the kuih sets, which consist of jewel-like Nyonya-style confections in flavors like pandan-black sesame, salted coconut, and cassava. Beautifully tinted with natural colors and barely sweet, they make for supremely satisfying, wobbly bites. Be sure to eat them right away, as their delicate texture is not made to last.
Know Before You Go
Bring cash and come early, as the kuih sets sometimes sell out. Information about the week's upcoming menu drops on Kuih Café's Instagram each Tuesday.