While I am normally not a sweet/dessert type of guy, preferring the savoury section of food instead, I have always been intrigued by the traditional Kek Lapis Sarawak – or Sarawak Layer Cake. I first discovered Sarawakian Layer Cakes during a tour of Kuching town, when our guide suggested a stop at one of the various factory/retail shop existing in town, Dayang Salhah. I immediately thought, here we go, the obligatory tourist trap. But I had to redeem myself; inside the store, we were greeted by friendly staff who showed us all the different Sarawak layer cakes that they made. There were several chillers where vividly colourful layer cakes were stacked up and ready to go. They then invited us to try strips and pieces of these delicacies, and with one bite I could tell that these were no ordinary cakes: they were tasty, moist and buttery and with just the right amount of sweetness, plus you could tell they had added spices to give special aroma to each of the cakes.
I was informed that Dayang Salhah began its operations in 1997 as a small family business, and that today it has evolved into the most famous and established manufacturer of Kek Lapis Sarawak. Check them out on http://keklapisdayangsalhah.net , you can even buy online if you live in Malaysia. I was deeply taken by Kek Lapis, and promised myself to get to know more about these traditional handcrafted cakes.
My research started with a bit of history of Kek Lapis, which seems to have been originally baked in the neighbouring Indonesia, and introduced to the people of Sarawak later, though there is also a theory that modern Sarawakian layered cakes were introduced to the people of Sarawak from innovation inspired by Western cake-making in early 1980s, using different ingredients and baking methods and giving the Sarawak version a totally unique look, crafted intricate designs and original flavours. This new generation of eye-catchingly bright layers cake is called Kek Lapis Qalas Qalas and they can be divided into two categories: ordinary layered cakes and cakes with patterns, motifs and shapes. As a rule, all Kek Lapis must have at least two colours!
Kek Lapis are usually baked for religious or cultural celebrations and special occasions, with Malaysian people serving them during open houses on festival days: Aidilfitri, Hari Raya, Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Deepavali, birthdays and weddings.
During my following few more days in Kuching, I had the chance to see layers cakes everywhere: inside shopping malls, at bakery and pop-up stalls, at Kek Lapis specialized cute little shops and even from vendors along the riverside galleried area, an infinite choice of flavoured and rainbow-coloured delicacies from different producers and brands, there to tease your taste buds. Kek Lapis prices varies from RM10 to RM30 depending on ingredients and size of the cakes; a good deal for a local delicacy, I thought.
My curiosity took me even further, and at Maria Kek Lapis, a cute shop in one of the Kuching alleys, at 4 Jalan Bishop Gate, I asked to tell me the ‘secret’ behind these delicacies. No secret, said Maria, and prompted me to follow her into the hot and tiny kitchen where it all happens.
The recipe calls for butter, eggs, sugar, flour, milk and colouring and flavouring ingredients like pandan, chocolate, peppermint, strawberry, mango or orange, as well as products like Horlicks and Milo. Making Kek Lapis is indeed an extremely tedious job, one that can only be rewarded by the beauty of the final creation.
A layer cake usually has between 10 and 20 parallel layers of cakes, with Sarawak version using 5 layers at the bottom, a fancy design in the middle and another 5 layers at the top. This middle fancy section is achieved by creating strips of different colours cut into square or triangular shapes using a utility knife: a very skilled job!
A small amount of batter is then evenly spread in between each layer, and a 5 minutes baking time is given to the tray after each layer has been composed. Once this is done, the cake is tamped down flat with a special tool before the baker creates the next layer, and so on. Considering the number of layers at 5 minutes baking time per layer plus preparation time, you can easily work out that it takes between an hour work and two to make one single cake happen!
Kek Lapis use no leavening agent and must be cooked from the top – like if you were grilling each layer; if you baked a layers cake in a conventional oven way you would end up with a dry and overcooked cake. To give Kek Lapis the high and firm texture, the layers are ‘glued’ together using jam or condensed milk, the latter usually making the cake hold longer. Special, more detailed cakes require special moulds. After baking the last layer, the cake must be cooled at room temperature before being exposed in the chiller.
Well, chapeau to the Kek Lapis makers; such a laborious and time-consuming process fully deserved my investment into different cakes! And they are not just cakes, they are pieces of art. It is still hard for me to grasp that something that takes so long to prepare and bake can be devoured in such a small amount of time!