Kaya is the colloquial term for serikaya in Singapore.1 It is a sweet, creamy spread or custard made with coconut cream, eggs, sugar and pandan leaves.2 It is commonly eaten in Singapore as a spread on toasted bread with butter, in a dish known as kaya toast.3 Variations of kaya can be found in other parts of Southeast Asia. In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is known as serikaya. In Thailand, kaya is known as sangkhaya, and an eggless version of the spread is known as matamís sa bao in the Philippines.4
There are differing accounts on the origins of kaya or serikaya. Some state that it is a Eurasian jam unique to Singapore and Malaysia, and was originally adapted from a Portuguese egg jam. In this adaptation, coconut milk and pandan leaves were used in place of milk and vanilla pods respectively.5 Another source speculates that kaya is based on the Portuguese dessert, sericaia, which is made from eggs, sugar, milk and cinnamon and shares a similar taste.6
Some sources also credit early Hainanese immigrants with developing kaya as the spread that is eaten on toast. When Hainanese immigrants first arrived in Singapore in the 19th century, many of them worked as cooks on board British ships, in British homes, or in hotels run by Europeans.7 As competition for domestic employment increased and more British left Singapore in the early 20th century, many of these Hainanese immigrants began establishing their own businesses selling food in kopitiam (Hokkien for “coffee shop”).8 Drawing from their experience working for Europeans, they adapted Western-style, fruit-based jams to create kaya, and developed kaya toast based on the original British breakfast.9
Hainanese cooks and kopitiam were responsible for popularising the consumption and taste of kaya that Singaporeans are familiar with today, although sources disagree on how the cooks came to develop kaya.10 One source credits nonya (Straits Chinese or Peranakan women) for imparting the knowledge of kaya-making to the Hainanese cooks who worked for rich Straits Chinese families.11 In an oral history interview, Ong Siew Peng, a Hainanese coffee shop worker in the 1920s, speculated that kaya began in Singapore as part of Malay cuisine. It was then adapted by Hainanese coffee shops to become the kaya spread we know today.12
According to researcher Khir Johari, kaya originates from Malay cuisine and is part of serikaya, a broader range of egg-based coconut cream confections. Serikaya and kaya emerged through experimentation within Malay food culture, alongside a traditional culinary understanding of combining sweetened coconut cream with eggs.13 Johari argues that Portuguese sericaia possibly took inspiration from Malay serikaya instead, as serikaya was likely already a staple in Malay royal households when the Portuguese first made contact with the Malay world in the 16th century. One of the earliest mentions of serikaya can be found in a manuscript of Cerita Kutai (The Chronicles of Kutai), published in 1620.14
Homemade kaya is prepared in different ways and styles depending on the recipe.15 It can take several hours to cook a perfectly smooth kaya spread.16 In general, ingredients for kaya include coconut cream, eggs, white sugar and pandan leaves.17 Duck eggs were traditionally used in kaya within Malay cuisine and in some kaya produced in kopitiam.18
Coconut cream is extracted from freshly grated coconut. The coconut flesh is grated and soaked in plain water, then it is wrapped in a muslin cloth and squeezed.19 Thereafter, the coconut cream, eggs, sugar and pandan leaves are cooked in a double boiler. The mixture is stirred continuously until it is smooth and thick. In Hainanese coffee shops that used to make their own kaya spreads, the stirring process could take up to seven hours.20 Next, the mixture is covered and left to simmer for another 30 minutes to an hour. The spread is ready once it starts to firm up.21
Kaya can also be prepared in a solid custard form when it is steamed rather than stirred. This method results in a kaya custard cake that can be cut into slices and eaten with bread.22
Today, canned or packet coconut cream found in supermarkets can be used to substitute fresh coconut cream,23 and the use of an electric mixer shortens the stirring process.24
In Singapore, two types of kaya are commonly found. The caramel-flavoured and golden-brown kaya is the result of caramelised sugar before it is added into the mixture of eggs, coconut cream and pandan leaves. The other variation is the green pandan kaya, whose colour is derived from pandan leaves or pandan extract.25 Because of the caramelised sugar, the caramel variation has a longer shelf life than the pandan kaya.26
In Malay and Peranakan cuisine, kaya features on various types of kuih (generic Malay word for bite-sized snacks and desserts).27 Kuih salat is made by steaming a layer of semi-cooked kaya mixture on top of steamed glutinous rice.28 Similarly, pulut taitai is a kuih that consists of a bottom layer of glutinous rice that has been steamed with coconut milk and partially dyed blue with the butterfly pea flower, and a layer of kaya spread on top.29
In more recent years, local brands and restaurants have developed kaya spreads infused with other flavours, including sea-salt caramel, salted egg yolk, vanilla pandan, calamansi citrus and even Spanish saffron.30
Kaya in Singapore and abroad
Variations of kaya have been eaten in Singapore since pre-colonial times,31 and it has been a kopitiam staple on kaya toast since the early 20th century.32 However, kaya and kaya toast witnessed a resurgence in popularity in the late 1990s.33 While kaya toast could only be found sold in neighbourhood coffee shops in the past, it is now being sold in air-conditioned food courts, restaurants and cafes.34 Today, kaya toast paired with kopi (coffee) is considered a traditional Singapore breakfast.35 It is sold in popular local cafe chains like Toast Box, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, and Killiney Kopitiam, which have outlets in shopping malls.36 Bottled kaya from various brands can also be found in supermarkets.37
In their overseas outlets, Killiney Kopitiam and Ya Kun sell jars of kaya spread along with their signature kaya toasts.38 In 2017, the local brand Sing Kee Kaya, which is known for its kaya spread, became a market leader in South Korea, 11 years after it was first imported into the country by businessman Rak Namkung in 2006.39
- Coconut jam40
- Egg jam41
1. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays: Gastronomic Travels through the Archipelago (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2021), 297. (Call no. RSING 394.120899928 KHI-[CUS])
2. Hidayah Amin, Kuih: From Apam to Wajik, a Pictorial Guide to Malay Desserts (Singapore: Helang Books, an imprint of Archipelago Consultancy, Singapore, 2020), 292. (Call no. RSING 641.86 HID)
3. Nicole Tarulevicz, Eating Her Curries and Kway: A Cultural History of Food in Singapore (Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 83. (Call no. RSING 394.12095957 TAR-[CUS])
4. Ong Jin Teong, Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2016), 175. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 ONG)
5. Jean Duruz and Khoo Gaik Cheng, Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 46. (Call no. RSING 394.1209595 DUR-[CUS])
6. Sharon Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen: Singapore Recipes from My Mother (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2012), 265. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 WEE)
7. National Heritage Board, “Traditional Breakfast of Kaya and Kopi,” Roots, 15 July 2019. (From NLB’s Web Archive Singapore)
8. Duruz and Khoo, Eating Together, 47–48.
9. Lai Ah Eng, “The kopitiam in Singapore: An Evolving Story about Migration and Cultural Diversity,” in Migration and Diversity in Asian Contexts, ed. Lai Ah Eng, Francis L. Collins and Brenda S. A. Yeoh (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), 375 (Call no. RSING 304.8095 MIG); National Heritage Board, “Traditional Breakfast of Kaya and Kopi”; Melody Zaccheus, “From ‘Luoli’ to Kaya Toast: New exhibition on Unique Aspects of Chinese Singaporean identity,” Straits Times, 29 February 2020. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
10. Duruz and Khoo, Eating Together, 47.
11. Ong, Nonya Heritage Kitchen, 175.
12. “Egg Jam,” Straits Budget, 1 June 1939, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Ong Siew Peng, oral history interview by Jesley Chua Chee Huan, 22 January 1991, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:05, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 001210, Reel 4), 53–55.
13. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 297.
14 Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 303.
15. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Kaya to Please All,” Straits Times, 19 September 2010, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Philip Chia, The Peranakan Kitchen: Savouring the Best from a Rich Culinary legacy (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2020), 142. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 CHI)
17. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 165; Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 263.
18. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 165; Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 263.
19. Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 34.
20. Teong Ah Chin, oral history interview by Ang Siew Ghim, 30 March 1985, transcript and MP3 audio, 28:52, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000536, Reel 11), 167.
21. Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 263.
22. Lee Geok Boi, In a Straits-born Kitchen (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2021), 8. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 LEE)
23. Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 34.
24. Chia, The Peranakan Kitchen, 142.
25. Wee, Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, 263.
26. Lee, In a Straits-born Kitchen, 144.
27. Amin, Kuih: From Apam to Wajik, a Pictorial Guide to Malay Desserts, 10.
28. Lee, In a Straits-born Kitchen, 142.
29. Ong, Nonya Heritage Kitchen, 231.
30. Don Mendoza, “Spread the Love,” Today, 27 August 2016, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 303.
32. Duruz and Khoo, Eating Together, 47.
33. Lea Wee, “Spread Some Love Around,” Straits Times, 5 December 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Wee, “Spread Some Love Around.”
35. Audrey Ng, “Keeping Traditions Alive,” Straits Times, 2 August 2015, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Huang Lijie, “Kopi Cats,” Straits Times, 11 July 2010, 24; Eunice Quek, “Stirring up Kopi Scene,” Straits Times, 24 March 2013, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Magdalene Lum, “Bottled Kaya Business Is Getting Richer,” Straits Times, 5 December 1999, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Teo Pau Lin, “Kaya War Spreads,” Straits Times, 17 August 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Chung May Choon, “Singapore Kaya Brand Is Market Leader in South Korea,” Straits Times, 5 November 2017. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
40. Hedy Khoo, “Kaya (Coconut Jam)”, New Paper, 2 December 2012, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Tan, “Kaya to Please All.”
42. Khir Johari, The Food of Singapore Malays, 376.
The information in this article is valid as of 24 February 2022 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Heritage and Culture
Singapore--Social life and customs