Less of a dessert (in the contemporary sense, at least), Onde Onde (pronounced ‘on-day’) is a bite-sized pocket of palm sugar encased in a glutinous rice flour and sweet potato dough, coated with shredded coconut. This dish is a real joy to consume, where the explosion of sugar with the first bite is addictive in itself. Factor in its compact, portable form and you’ve got yourself the ideal snack to reach out for while watching the latest episode of Top Chef Masters. It is, however, a little more challenging to make than your regular bowl of chips and salsa.
Also spelt Ondeh Ondeh, the name comes from the Malay word to refer to anything round or globular, and food shaped into a ball. There are few variations of this kuih, and the differences I’ve come across pertain to the addition of mashed sweet potatoes to the dough. I was initially skeptical about this part, seeing how other recipes that omitted the tuber produced perfectly formed balls, but one bite was all it took to see the difference. The mashed potatoes gave the skin the softest texture, a world away from the often stiff and chewy skins commonly found on the commercial versions. And it’s easy to see why the potatoes are left out. As I spent a full 20 minutes hard at work to pass the potatoes that had been first steamed, then mashed, through a fine-mesh sieve to remove its fibers, I found myself questioning the rationale and value of this ingredient, completely ignorant to the rewards that the humble sweet potato would bring to the final result. Sure, it takes more effort and elbow grease, but I’m glad I did it.
Preparing this dessert, I began to realize how food is not only social in its consumption, but also in its preparation. Gathering around a large bowl of dough, alongside bowls of sugar and grated coconut, many hands make quick work of shaping and forming these sweet nuggets for enjoyment. There are some types of food that require the utmost concentration and a keen eye on the clock for success, leaving scant time for socializing and random chit-chat. But not Onde Onde and the rest of the kuihs, pastries and tarts from my childhood. These were meant to be prepared among friends and family in anticipation of an upcoming festivity or reunion, amid gossip, much teasing and endless laughter.
Onde Onde (adapted from Irene’s Peranakan Recipes)
Makes about 40 balls
I’ve tweaked the proportions in the original recipe to adapt to the amount of sweet potatoes I had, following the proportion of 5 grams (0.18 ounces) of flour to 12 grams (0.42 ounces) of potatoes.
1 lb/ 500 grams sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
7 ounces/ 210 grams glutinous rice flour
3 ounces/ 80 grams shredded coconut
¼ teaspoon salt
2 drops green food coloring (optional)
8 pandan leaves, shredded
½ cup water
3½ ounces/ 100 grams palm sugar, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon white sugar
Steam the sweet potato chunks until tender, then mash them and pass the potatoes through a fine mesh sieve to remove the fibres. Set aside.
Prepare the coating: mix the salt and coconut together and steam for about 20 minutes, then leave to cool.
In a food processor or a blender, combine the shredded pandan leaves with the water and pulse until all the leaves are coarsely chopped. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Add the food coloring if using.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, the rice flour and pandan juice, knead and mix until you get a soft, pliable dough. Add more water or flour to reach the desired consistency. The final dough should be very soft and slightly sticky.
For the filling, mix the palm and white sugar together in a separate bowl.
To assemble, pull off a marble-sized portion of dough and flatten it in your palm, making a depression in the center by using your little finger to press some of the dough across the middle. Scoop about ½ a teaspoon of the sugar filling into the dent, then fold the dough to seal it and gently roll it between your palms to shape into balls. Ensure that all seams are tightly sealed to prevent the dough from breaking apart in the water.
When all the dough has been prepared, set a pot of water to boil and prepare a wire rack set over a baking tray. Once the water boils briskly, add the balls, up to 5 at a time, to the pot. They’re ready when they start floating on the surface, which should take about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on the wire rack. Roll each ball in the coconut/salt mixture and serve.