Kuih Bingka Ubi from Yangsze Choo, author of The Ghost Bride
Today we’re excited to share a recipe from Yangsze Choo, author of New York Times bestseller, The Ghost Bride. Her stunning debut is a startlingly original novel infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, and unexpected supernatural twists.
Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?
Download The Ghost Bride for just $0.99 from your favorite online retailer (promotion ends 5/18).
Kuih Bingka Ubi – A Delicious, Gluten/Dairy-free Malaysian Cake
I must confess that I wrote large chunks of my novel, THE GHOST BRIDE, late at night. This was good because there were fewer interruptions from small children, who were prone to barge in, demanding snacks or UN level peace negotiations with their siblings. But it was also bad because nighttime was when I felt particularly hungry and nostalgic for the tastes of home. It didn’t help that the book is set in my home country of Malaysia – a S.E. Asian foodie paradise.
THE GHOST BRIDE is a tale about young Chinese woman in 1890s colonial Malaya who receives a proposal of marriage from the son of the richest family in town — the only problem is that he’s dead. This whole notion of marrying a ghost is steeped in Chinese traditions, which also showed up in my book as food offerings and multi-course banquets with dish after dish of local delicacies, from fiddlehead fern kerabu to steamed silvery pomfret drizzled with shallot oil and soy sauce.
So there I was, typing away frantically at night and feeling hungrier and hungrier. As the night wore on, there would be increasing detours to do “research” in my refrigerator, and whip up samples. None of this was really necessary of course, since many signature dishes in Malaysia, such as nasi lemak (coconut rice with chicken curry and an assortment of tempting side dishes like fried peanuts and crisp tiny fish) haven’t really changed from the 1890s, but it’s amazing what you can persuade yourself to do when you have writer’s block at 11pm.
Things got so bad that for about six months, I lived entirely in sweatpants and started having hallucinations about acquiring a handsome butler (more on that later) but in the meantime, I’d like to share with you a quick, easy, and authentic Malaysian snack that can be eaten at any time of the day.
Kuih ubi bingka is tapioca cake. But it’s not your ordinary tapioca concoction. This is a fragrant, golden, crisp-on-top and chewy on the inside cake that’s mildly sweet and utterly satisfying. When I was a child, we’d buy this from the snack seller who came by on his motorbike with trays of different nyonya kuih, an astounding variety of sweet sticky rice and coconut parcels, displayed on oiled banana leaves. In the good old days, people used to grill this in covered square metal pans by piling coals on the top and the bottom, but now there are things like ovens to help me feed my addiction. In fact, once you gather the ingredients it’s shockingly easy to bake (and eat). Best of all, it’s also gluten and dairy-free! There are many versions of this cake because it’s very forgiving, but here’s mine, which I’ve pared down to the essentials and is easily made in a single bowl.
- 1 one pound packet of frozen grated tapioca root, also known as cassava or yuca in Spanish. This can be found in the frozen section of any large Asian grocery which carries some Malaysian/Indonesian/Filipino produce. Traditionally you’re supposed to grate the tapioca root by hand, drain it, pour off some of the bitter juice etc. but ever since I discovered the frozen option, I’ve never looked back.
- 1 egg
- 1 cup of coconut milk. Canned is fine, and in the picture above, you can see my favorite Thai brand which is called Chaokoh. Make sure to shake the can well before opening it so that the coconut cream, which separates on the top, is well mixed in.
- ½ cup of sugar
- A pinch of salt
- 2-3 pandan leaves (sections). This is optional flavoring, but if you’re in a grocery store that sells frozen grated tapioca, they will almost certainly also carry this leaf in the frozen section as well. If you buy a pack, you can use it to make lots of other S.E. Asian delights.
- Defrost the grated tapioca, either by leaving it in the fridge for a day, or putting your packet in a bowl of cold water.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F
- Dump the grated tapioca in a mixing bowl and add everything else – the egg, sugar, salt, and coconut milk and mix with a spoon.
- Rinse the pandan leaves (if using) and shred/crush them lightly with your hands or the tines of a fork, without breaking the leaf into pieces. Add a few drops of water and squeeze the juice into the bowl. You can also swirl the leaves around in the mixture a bit, but remember to remove them before the next step.
- Butter/grease a square baking pan. I’ve used an 8×8 inch Pyrex pan here because I like my kuih ubi bingka with a higher ratio of crispy grilled top, but you can also make it in a loaf pan, which will make it thicker.
- Pour in the batter and microwave it for 1 minute, stopping to check if it’s thickening, then an additional minute for a total of 2 minutes. This makes the baking process go faster. If you want to skip this step, then just add an additional 10-15 minutes to your baking time.
- Put the baking dish in the middle rack of your oven and bake for 30 minutes. Using a loaf pan may take a little longer since the cake will be thicker, so use your judgment. The cake should be moist with a pleasantly elastic bite. It will have a different texture (denser and not as dry) than a regular flour-based cake.
- After 30 minutes, turn your oven to broil for a couple of minutes until the top is lightly brown and appetizingly caramelized. Apparently you’re not really supposed to broil with Pyrex, but since it’s set on the middle rack and the dish is already heated from the oven, there’s less chance of a temperature spike cracking it. If you’re worried about this, use a metal tin instead and skip the microwave step, baking for ~45 minutes, then broiling the top for a few extra minutes.
- Take it out and let it cool for at least an hour or more before attempting to slice. The cake will be very gooey and sticky when it first comes out. After it’s cooled down, you can take it out and slice with a sharp knife into small rich squares. Enjoy with strong tea or coffee! If you happen to have any left (small children love this), keep it in a sealed container so that it doesn’t dry out.
Yangsze Choo is a fourth generation Chinese from Malaysia who eats and reads too much and often does both at the same time. If you want to find out more about sweatpants and handsome butlers, come visit her blog at www.yschoo.com!