Pandan, Gula Melaka, & Coconut Agar-Agar

Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Milk

Two weeks ago, I attended The Fay Khoo Awards, a celebration of food writing in Malaysia. Though it might not have seemed it then, upon reflection, attending the awards was sort of revelatory for me. It revealed to me two big, audaciously hopeful things:

Food writing in Malaysia is alive and kicking

Sure, food writing isn’t exactly a new niche in Malaysia, but for far too long, the local Malaysian food media has been inundated with blasé, cookie-cutter restaurant reviews and listicle-style musings on the latest food fads. But this, this was different.

We heard evocative essays about egg tarts and mahjong, a eulogy on maraschino cherries, a witty piece about a banker’s mamak meal, a colourful account of a Malaysian-Bengali culinary pilgrimage, and even a recollection of a Gaggan dinner written in the style of a play! They were all freakin’ beautiful. And it really lifted my heart to know that there is a community out there (few though our numbers may be) who values and champions substantial, thoughtful, awe-inspiring food writing in Malaysia.

So, with initiatives like the Fay Khoo Award, and with the ever brightening spotlight on Southeast Asian food scene (thank you Crazy Rich Asians and the Michelin Guide), I can’t wait to see our local food (and food writing) scene grow exponentially in the coming years! Man it gives me so much hope!

Maybe, just maybe, my writing isn’t as bad as I think it is

Surprise, surprise, my essay was one of six entries that got shortlisted!

My submission was a silly, rhyme-y, alliteration-filled piece on the three most prevalent colours and ingredients of Malaysian desserts — the green of pandan, the brown of gula melaka (coconut palm sugar), and the white of coconut milk — and draws parallels with our colourful history and political past (or what little I know of it).

Though the piece didn’t win the award (you’ll understand why if you read the other entries; they’re leaps and bounds ahead of mine!), writing it so delightful and enjoyable, it might just be my proudest bit of writing yet! I’ve included the essay in its entirety below. So have a read (maybe even out loud), and I hope you genuinely enjoy it as much as I did writing it!

Of course, there’s also an accompanying recipe at the very end, in the form of a tricolore agar-agar.

P.S. Congratulations to the winners Dipika and Soon Seng!!! Your essays were so beautiful and thoughtful and witty af; they are definitely #writinggoals. You can read their articles here, and you should!

Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Agar-Agar
Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Agar-Agar

Green, Brown, and White

a.k.a. the true national colours of Malaysia

­Green, brown, white. Like a kuih lapis, these three colours tell a tale of Malaysia – of our food, our history, and our redemption.

Green is the pandan. It is the spiky screwpine shrub in my backyard, its long leaves casting a shadow over the bougainvillea and borages. It is the supple spheres of ondeh-ondeh, the tender tegument of kuih ketayaps, the swiggles swimming in my cendol. ‘Asian vanilla’, they call it. But we know better, for it is so much more. It is what gives our cuisine a certain comfort. It is what perfumes our kayas, what colours our kuihs, and what grounds our gulais.

Brown is the gula melaka. It is the dark, complex, and subtly spiced sugar of coconut palm stems. It is the nectar that the demereras and muscovados of the world can never hope to match up to. It is the sticky sauce dripping off the kuih keria in our hands, the syrup soaking into our shaved ices, the top of the pulut inti we were supposed to share but secretly shovelled into our salivating mouths.

White is the coconut. It is the blizzard flying off the coconut grinder, the off-white ambrosia dripping off the squeezer. It is the santan in our kuih salats, the swirls in our tong suis, the creaminess in our curries. But most crucially, it is the lemak in our national nasi.

Green is the lush forests of Malaysia, the untouched jungles of yesteryear, the flora of our motherland before it came to be. It is the rolling hills, the paddy fields, the tranquil frills of the Pinang palm, and the tree that Parameswara sat under. It is the spread of Islam and the start of the sultanate, giving birth to our very beginnings.

Brown is the earth we sowed our fortunes on. It is the fertile lands we worked with our hands, the laterite roads connecting lands, the ground dug through by tin mines and dredges. It is the grit that caked our faces, the harmony between the races, the sweat we shed for our successes.

White is our colonial past. It is the froth of the waves, the clap of the cannons, the shimmer of swords unsheathing on the Malaccan shore. It is the flash of musket fire against the steel of the keris. It is the white of the Prinsenvlag, the sails of the Royal Navy, the backdrop of the Hinomaru. It is the flags of our surrender.

Green is our riches. It is our independence. It is the viridian states of Borneo welcomed into our folds, the hundred-ringgit bills and the economy they uphold, the brand of our booming black gold. It is the pockets of nature weaving between the tint of the skyscrapers. It is the envy the world had for us, the upstart Asian tiger. We seemed unstoppable then, but oh how we’ve lost our lustre.

Brown is the dirt of corruption, the green stained and soiled by greed. It is the dirt swept under the carpet, the debris of our crumbling market, the shit-stain of the billion-dollar whale we never slain. It is the grime on the hands of those who committed the crimes, the same hands that gave out tarnished rations, drew new lines across the nation, spreading darkness and damnation.

White is the promise of a better Malaysia. It is the clarity of our conscience, the hope in our hearts, the shade of our sobriety and salvation. It is the ballot papers that tipped the scales, and lifted the veil, the result of the rakyat’s rail.

It is the colour of a new Malaysia.

Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Agar-Agar
Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Agar-Agar
Coconut, Pandan, & Gula Melaka Agar-Agar
Pandan, Gula Melaka, and Coconut Agar-Agar

Pandan, Gula Melaka, & Coconut Agar-Agar

Fills a 20 x 20cm square cake pan (or a large deep loaf tin)


3 pandan leaves
700ml water
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon (5g) agar-agar powder

150g block of gula melaka
650ml water
1 teaspoon (5g) agar-agar powder

300ml coconut milk (santan)
400ml water
100g caster sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon (5g) agar-agar powder


  1. Green layer: Cut the pandan leaves into ½-inch wide pieces. (I find that a pair of scissors does the job best.) Blend the pandan leaves together with 3-4 tablespoons of water in a blender until fine, then strain the liquid and discard the pulp. Place this in a pot, with the rest of the water, sugar, and agar-agar powder. Give it a quick stir and bring this to a boil, then set aside, covered.

  2. Brown layer: Place the gula melaka, water and agar-agar powder in a pot, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the gula melaka completely dissolves, then set it aside, covered.

  3. White layer: Pour the coconut milk, water, sugar, salt, and agar-agar powder in a pot, and bring to a quick boil. Remove from the heat and set aside, covered.

  4. Starting with the white layer, measure out 250ml of the coconut milk syrup, and pour this through a fine sieve into a 20 x 20cm tray. Leave it for 5-10 minutes to set, or until it is firm to touch. Give your measuring jug and sieve a quick wash, then repeat the process for the brown layer, and then the green layer. Do this until you run out of syrup; you should end up with 3 layers of each colour in total.


  • The setting time will decrease with the later layers, as the syrup will cool progressively in the pot itself. So for the final 2-3 layers, it might only take as little as 2 minutes for the layer to set firmly.

  • If at any point you find that the syrup has jellified in the pot, simply heat it up again and stir until the jelly dissolves into a liquid.

  • You could also do this in a glass, a bowl, a loaf tin… any vessel at all really, it doesn’t have to be a square tray. You might’ve realised I made two different ones, and imho the ones made in a loaf tin (the ones with thicker layers) came out a lot more distinct and aesthetically pleasing! So I’d encourage using deeper trays or loaf tins, even.