Kaya toast has been eaten across Malaysia and Singapore for at least 100 years. Frequently cited as a must-try food for travellers to these countries, it’s a simple combination of white bread and a condiment made from sugar, eggs, coconut milk and pandan.
The flavour is so established in Southeast Asia that it has migrated into many other eats, including in a doughnut, courtesy of Indonesia’s J Co.
Since the beginning of this year, the Malay classic has been spreading across social media in the US as smoothly as jam over bread, largely thanks to one particular cafe: Breadbelly. Opened at the very end of 2018, this former pop-up prepares a kaya jam that is distinctively green hued, thanks to the proportion of pandan used in the mix. Slathered on milk bread, it is sending San Franciscans into paroxysms of alternative-breakfast ecstasy.
On this side of the Atlantic, the tea house speciality has been slowly appearing on more Asian restaurant menus. Since last February, Tea Room in Soho has offered it as part of its Hong Kong-style brunch, accompanying a so-called spa egg (an egg poached in its shell). Old Chang Kee, the Singaporean chain famed for its curry puffs that opened an outlet in London last summer, also does a line in kaya toast.
Taking the dish out of its natural element, chef Elizabeth Haigh chose to highlight the flavour as part of her special three-night Christmas menu at Narroway Studios in December, putting it into s’mores made with coconut marshmallow, kaya jam and cinnamon biscuit.
Malaysian food is making tentative strides in the capital: laksa specialist Sambal Shiok set up a permanent storefront last year, while vegetarian spot Genesis also borrowed influences from the country for its menu. According to a report from CGA and Lee Kum Kee, Malaysian is also the most popular Oriental cuisine in the UK after Chinese, Thai and Japanese, tying with Vietnamese.
More widely there’s been plenty of experimentation with Asian flavours for breakfast, from Korean gojuchang to Japanese mirin. Recently opened Bambusa – headlined by former Cinnamon Club MD Rohit Chugh – is serving up these tastes and more as part of a new fast-casual cafe concept, which is aimed squarely at morning and midday meals.
At the end of last year, burgeoning Vietnamese grab-and-go chain Hop invested big in in a new outlet in the Leadenhall Building. Breakfast is a target area for growth, though founder Paul Hopper noted that the truly authentic fare had struggled to impress consumers, who tended to be less experimental first thing in the day. To compensate, he slashed the congee options and added a bacon butty with a sriracha ketchup twist.
So does Sparkie think kaya toast is too much of an acquired taste for brekkie?
I had a fair amount of kaya when I was in Singapore. It’s good, like a coconut-flavoured jam. Pandan for me is way too strong of a flavour and must be used extremely sparingly for it not to overpower everything.
I think kaya being popular in parts of America will be to do with the coconut fad still being prominent there, whereas it has seemed to die out a little bit over here as the science caught up with the nutritional claims.
Despite the negative press surrounding the health aspects of coconut in this country, I think it would still do well enough as an addition to the jam aisle because the flavour is fairly well liked. Marketing it as an authentic traditional food product from southeast Asia would help it along too.