Trifle, custard tart, rhubarb pie, tiramisu… Ah, I feel the saliva pool in my mouth.

On the other hand, bubur cha-cha, bubur durian, pulut hitam, onde-onde… “Apa ke benda tu?” (What on Earth are those?)

In our globalised lifestyle, fruits, buttery pastries and bizarre custard fillings evoke thoughts of wonder and bliss. But the occasional run-in with a desiccated coconut-covered Asian desert, and I’m running in the opposite direction.

All my life, I’ve been terrified of many Malay desserts.

The author’s grandmother making nagasari. Photo: Zulaikha Ishak

From the wild bubur tai-tai, to the suspicious looking kueh tako, to the poorly named kueh bom, kueh siput and kueh pancong, I’ve found myself staying away from the bizarre desserts unless force-fed by my grandmother.

I can recall every moment in my life when I tried different Malay desserts.

My first kueh batang buruk was at an open house when I was six years old – I actually liked that stuff, save for the dusty aftermath on my lips. The first time I had kueh salat was in Primary 4, nibbling the glutinous rice-end of the cake, leaving the green part for my friend (or as a sticky mess under the desk).

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t grow up in traditional Nyonya sarong kebayas, but I do enjoy a warm dish of ikan tenggiri masak asam pedas (a sour and spicy fish stew). Just not the sago gula Melaka that came after.

Different landscapes truly open doors into different cultures as well as the distance between them. When I was younger and just moved to Brunei after living in Singapore, I recall my mother asking me to do a chore for her. I was sitting on my late Bruneian grandfather’s lap — with a very serious face, he whispered to innocent little me: “Gitau mama mu – malas tah ku ingau” (Tell your mum, I can’t be bothered).

Thus, was my first immersion into the Brunei-Malay language and its cheeky tone, and I had the bruise from mum’s pinch to attest to it.

Though Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei are separated only by a matter of degrees, the difference in culture is marked and absolutely wonderful.

The banana and rice flour mixture being packed into a banana leaf before steaming. Photo: Zulaikha Ishak

For example, when I’m running amok with the chickens back in Melaka, I am a demure kampong girl who insists on wearing batik skirts and begging my grandmother for fish-eggs. When I’m back in Singapore, I am a completely different person – suddenly snobbish and well-versed in using the slang (steady sia), hunting Mars bars goreng or Rojak India from Geylang Serai. When in Brunei… Well, as my grandfather taught me, “malas tah ku ingau. I just buy the occasional Paddle Pop ice-cream from the mini-mart two minutes away.

Now that I’m living in Melbourne, it’s a very different story. Suddenly all I dream about is churros, cheesecakes and lamingtons. I’ve begun to bear a strong resemblance to a telly-tubby, and my clothes are starting to cut off my circulation.

But my brother’s wedding this week brought me back home, and even scarier – face to face with yet another sticky dessert. I watched anxiously as my grandmother mixed the mountains of rice flour with coconut milk. Oh no… that does not look like churros to me.

An hour later, I had the first bite of nagasari in my life – a steamed banana rice cake, of sorts. And I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older, or I’ve had one too many cookies from Coles, but it was actually really good – it made me feel instantly at home. And in the madness and chaos of our fast-paced lives, it’s always wonderful to savor a bit of home.

So here it is. The recipe for a desert that once terrified me:


The finished product – nagasari (C) served with another Nyonya staple, onde-onde (top and below). Photo: Zulaikha Ishak


 100g of rice flour
 A can of coconut milk
 Saba banana, cut diagonally into equal slices
 Banana leaves, washed and wiped clean
 Pandan leaves, washed and wiped clean
 A bit of sugar
 A bit of salt


TIP: Any time coconut milk is used, a spoonful of salt to makes it tastier)


1. Pour the flour in a big pot.
2. Add salt and sugar.
3. Add the coconut milk.
4. Toss the folded pandan leaves into the mixture and stir over low fire until a thick consistency is formed. Take off heat
5. Place cut bananas onto banana leaf.
6. Scoop two tablespoons of the mixture onto the banana and package the filling nicely. Steam for 25 minutes.
7. Let cool and serve chilled.

Zulaikha Ishak is a Bruneian postgraduate student studying environmental sustainablility in Melbourne, Australia. The only daughter in a family of five boys, she’s either vying for total attention from her parents or bringing the best kind of hell to her brothers.