Connie Thame, like so many Asian students who come to Perth to study, found herself missing the foods of home: in particular, kuih – sweet and savoury snacks that are eaten throughout the day in many Southeast Asian countries. But unlike most of her peers, she took it upon herself to recreate these familiar flavours. Her game plan? Google recipes and fine-tune them till she ended up with something resembling the kuih she grew up eating on Langkawi Island, her home in Malaysia.
“At that time  you didn’t really have much choice [for Malaysian food] and I didn’t see anyone selling kuih at the time, so I started making it,” says Thame. “Every time there was a party at a friend’s place, I brought some over and everyone loved it, but I didn’t think about pursuing it any further.”
People, of course, change their minds. In September, Thame and her Burmese-born, Singaporean-raised husband, Sithu, launched The Layers, a weekly pop-up selling boxes of mixed kuih that change weekly. One week, guests might find thick slices of kuih talam, a sweet-salty green and white pandan and coconut cream jelly, in their box. The next, shiny bricks of kuih kastard jagung (sweet corn puddings) and mottled blue and white squares of kuih pulut tekan (pressed glutinous rice cakes) will feature in that week’s box of 16. (Each week’s assortment is generally made up of four pieces of four different kuihs, with additional items such as bubur hitam, a sweet rice porridge, also on offer).
Each week’s kuih is made fresh on Saturday night, with each batch taking around 10 hours to prepare. Although the wide world of kuih features baked and fried numbers, the majority are steamed and feature combinations of coconut milk, palm sugar and flour (rice and tapioca, mostly) to achieve a supple mouthfeel. Initially, Connie’s kuih-making was limited to the two varieties she missed the most: kuih seri muka (similar to the kuih tulum, but made with glutinous rice) and kuih lapis, the multilayered soft rice pudding The Layers is named for. In preparation for launch last year, she began expanding her range and researching new recipes.
The most time-consuming of the kuihs currently on the menu is the ang ku kuih, the red tortoise cake. Often used as a religious offering – both the colour red and the tortoise are considered auspicious in Chinese culture – these ornate glutinous rice-flour cakes filled with mung bean are made by pressing the dough into plastic moulds then placing it on a square of pandan leaf. (The Thames grow their own pandan at home.) The dough-making process alone takes two hours and involves steaming then pureeing sweet potatoes to create a paste.
Although the Thames – like most Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian expats – grew up with kuih, making the jump from eater to maker has exposed them to the breadth and diversity of the Southeast Asian pastry universe. In short: even Connie and Sithu are constantly learning about new cakes.
“Some of the dishes we’ve never tried before, so we’ve had to try quite a few times just to get the recipe right,” says Sithu. “We can spend hours and sometimes days getting the recipe right. We’re passionate about it.”
For now, The Layers is a weekly pop-up run out of the Thames’s Japanese takeaway restaurant in East Perth. Although cooking Japanese food for the past seven years has allowed the Thames to make a living, both are hoping to be able to focus more on their joint Malaysian-Singaporean heritage in future.
“We haven’t thought that far at the moment, but if it works, I do wish to have a cafe one day serving more of this food,” says Connie.
All orders for The Layers Australia are accepted online through Instagram. Orders for each week’s box can be made till Saturday for Sunday pick-up in East Perth.