Veronica Gan came to the United States in 1999 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Naturally, she missed her country and craved the authentic foods and desserts of home. A friend visiting from Malaysia asked for help making traditional pineapple cookies to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Gan realized she loved the therapeutic feeling of making the desserts.
“I was homesick, I wanted to eat more food from back home,” Gan says. “At that time you couldn’t learn from YouTube, just from books. So I asked my brothers to send me books and recipes from Malaysia.”
Gan began by selling her desserts to her friends and family, and their popularity gave her the idea of renovating her kitchen into an at-home bakery. After finding out that it was likely illegal to do so, Gan began looking for places in New York City to rent. Due to Chinatown’s Asian influence and its centrality to the five boroughs and New Jersey, she settled on the little shop on Eldridge Street. In February 2020, she opened Kuih Cafe — kuih means dessert in Malay.
However, little did she know a pandemic was right around the corner, and just one month after opening, Gan was forced to close Kuih’s doors and resume baking from home.
“I was scared. I thought I’d have to close the store for good,” she says.
Because Kuih Cafe was new it did not qualify for most federal relief programs. Some programs required businesses to be open for three months, others for a year. Fortunately, Gan had the support of Send Chinatown Love and her landlord — who did not charge her rent throughout the shutdown. Send Chinatown Love also promoted the business and customers kept ordering. Gan had orders from all over the country including from California, Texas and Florida.
“They helped me a lot, if not I wouldn’t be here, I would have closed down,” she says. “Luckily a lot of customers supported me. They are so kind. They didn’t want me to close. I was so happy. I thought, ‘Why are people so nice?’”
Gan was able to open up once again in June 2020, but business was still very slow, not enough people were visiting Chinatown or walking by the cafe. Gan was only making $38 a day — not nearly enough to cover rent.
However, the slowness did not stop her. She kept on making her desserts and in time, by word of mouth and Instagram, customers began visiting the shop. She loves being able to connect with her home via the desserts and loves sharing them with others. Currently, she is only open three days a week, from Friday to Sunday.
Kuih Cafe is a one-woman operation. Gan buys all of the ingredients, prepares the pastries and sells them herself. Nothing is frozen and she makes everything from scratch. For example, a batch of pineapple cookies requires six fresh pineapples, which she peels, washes and cooks for several hours to make the jam that fills them.
While the desserts are bright and full of color, they are also all-natural. For example, the ube (purple yam) in the ube mango pastry gives the sweet desert a soft purple color. The talam pandan, a steamed salty coconut custard layered over pandan custard, is made out of the Pandan plant which gives it its dark green color. Each week the menu is different, so customers must stay updated to see what’s new.
“I rotate and change it. I think this is the reason customers like it,” Gan says. “My store is in a quiet street so I have to think of something special to keep the customers coming.”
While many small business owners have hopes of expanding, Gan doesn’t mind staying in the same place.
“This is my hobby. I love making all these things and sharing with my customers what Malaysian desserts are.”