Agar-agar gula melaka is an aromatic and flavorful local dessert from Malaysia, made with agar-agar and thick coconut milk, fragranced with pandan and sweetened with gula melaka. The two-tone layers of the dessert make for a pleasing appearance, requiring no extra effort; the coconut milk fat is lower in density than water and hence it floats to the top.
Gula melaka,as it is known in Malaysia, is an unrefined form of palm sugar, made from sap extracted from the date, coconut or sago palm. The sap is boiled over low flame until it thickens and is left to solidify in hollow bamboo tubes, usually 3-5 inches in length, thus forming a cylindrical block of natural sweetener with a rich, complex flavor and aroma that refined sugar cannot match. The color of gula melaka varies from golden brown to a rich, dark brown. Gula melaka is extensively used throughout Southeast Asia as a flavoring agent for various culinary delights; rendang for instance, a very popular meat-based curry in Malaysia and Indonesia often includes a pinch of gula melaka. More often however, gula melaka is predominantly used for sweets and desserts. Agar-agar gula melaka is one such dessert.
Gula melaka, being an unrefined form of sugar is generally considered to be healthier than refined sugar since unrefined sugar retains more minerals. Consequently, this dessert could be considered to be relatively healthier than refined-sugar-based desserts.
Good quality thick coconut milk (known as “santan” in Malay) is imperative for a successful outcome. While canned/frozen/UHT coconut milk can be used to make this dessert as is done in modern-day households, freshly-made coconut milk is strongly recommended, not just to ensure a quality finished product taste-wise and appearance-wise but also for health purposes as fresh is always better than unfresh. Stale coconut milk can curdle when boiled, resulting in a relatively unappetizing finished product, taste-wise and appearance-wise. Coconut milk that is too dilute i.e., the water content is too high, may result in a finished product where the coconut layer is disproportionately too thin. Hence, it may be necessary to make adjustments to the ratios specified in the recipe depending on the quality of the coconut milk.
Pandan leaves lose their aroma and flavor as they get old. Hence, use only fresh pandan leaves, the fresher the better. The quantity can be adjusted as desired, for a stronger aroma and flavor use more, for a milder version use less.
- 2 cups (about 500ml) water
- 1 3/4 cup loosely packed agar-agar strands (or as required for the above quantity of water – follow directions on the package)
- 110 grams – 150 grams (about 1/2 – 3/4 cups loosely packed) crushed gula melaka
- 2-3 fresh pandan leaves – tied to a knot
- 1 1/4 cups (about 300ml) thick coconut milk
- Pinch of salt
In a heavy-bottom pan, combine water, agar-agar and gula melaka.
Over medium heat, bring to a boil.
Lower heat and simmer until agar-agar dissolves completely, stirring continuously.
Remove pandan leaf.
Add pinch of salt to the thick coconut milk.
Pour thick coconut milk into the pan of dissolved agar-agar.
Increase heat to medium-low and bring the liquid to a boil, stirring continously.
Once boiling stop heat immediately.
Pour the mixture into a mould, and leave to set undisturbed.
The agar-agar can be eaten now, but it tastes better when chilled; once cooled completely, place the container in a refrigerator. The agar-agar will separate into to two neat and distinct layers – a rich brown clear layer at the bottom, and an opaque, caramel-colored coconut milk fat layer at the top.
Unmould the agar-agar and cut to neat rectangles. Serve chilled.