Layer upon colourful layer of summery flavours that really do melt in your mouth. A concoction of charming tastes to titillate your tastebuds. On the northwest of Borneo lies Sarawak, where the mouthwatering Kek Lapis Sarawak (Sarawak (layer cake) comes from!
Most Malaysians have heard of and tried Kek Lapis Sarawak but outside of Malaysia it only has a small, loyal following of people introduced to it by expat Sarawakians.
But that’s about to change after it was featured on the hugely popular Great British Bake Off, a UK TV show that regularly attracts more than 8 million viewers per episode! Judges rated it “one of the most difficult” creations ever!
Contestants presenting their Kek Lapis Sarawak on Great British Bake Off. Source: Rojak Daily
What is Kek Lapis Sarawak?
Great British Bake Off host Sandi Toksvig described Kek Lapis Sarawak as “a kaleidoscope of coloured layers.”
Lapis means layers, and as the name suggests, Kek Lapis Sarawak is a cake of multiple layers. Each cake has unique patterns, a rich taste, and vibrant colours that are interlaced with a variety of East-meets-West flavours such as pandan, Gula Melaka, Cadbury chocolate, Horlicks and Red Velvet, and even fruity flavours!
All Kek Lapis Sarawak consists of at least 2 colours, with various flavours tastefully interlaced with each other. The cake can be divided into two categories: cakes with normal layers or cakes with patterns.
Traditionally, Kek Lapis Sarawak is served during festive and special occasions however because of its growing popularity, it is increasingly served all year round.
Where does Kek Lapis Sarawak come from?
Kek Lapis Sarawak has become such an iconic part of our heritage that it is now a protected geographical indicator (GI) of our state! But what are the origins of the cake and what inspired the Sarawakian twist?
The Betawi from Batavia (the old name for Jakarta), Indonesia brought their layered cake to Sarawak in the 1970s and 1980s. They taught the locals how to make what they called Kek Lapis Betawi or “spiced Betawi cake” that used spices like cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and star anise as flavours. These cakes were a localised version of cakes made by the wives of Dutch administrators stationed in Batavia and were served during evening teas.
The people of Betawi also went to Peninsular Malaysia and the spread of Kek Lapis Betawi began. Johoreans especially adopted the recipe and stayed close to the original spiced flavours of the Kek Lapis Betawi, but Sarawak went a different route.
The original Kek Lapis Betawi had more brown tones to them. Source: Daily Cooking Quest
How are they made?
By infusing Western cake-making techniques and flavours, Sarawakians created their own version of the layered cake that was more moist and used many different flavours.
Kek Lapis Sarawak batter uses butter or vegetable oil, milk and eggs, and the mixture is thoroughly mixed with an electric mixer. Or, with strong arms! The multiple layers found in the cake are achieved by pouring thin layers of different flavoured cake mix.
However, baking Kek Lapis Sarawak is unlike baking any normal cake.
Traditionally, cakes are popped into the oven together, as soon as all the layers are assembled. With Kek Lapis Sarawak, the layers are “cooked” progressively. You begin by pouring a layer of cake batter into a cake pan, spreading it thinly and covering the base of the cake pan, then pop it in the oven for 3-5 minutes. You then repeat the process with each layer until your Kek Lapis Sarawak is complete.
Besides the layering process, what makes baking the Kek Lapis Sarawak unconventional is that it is not actually baked per se, but rather broiled. As the layers are cooked one after another, heat from the top of the oven will ensure that only the raw, topmost layer of the cake will be cooked, without overcooking the layers below.
An authentic Kek Lapis Sarawak is 3 inches high and 8 inches wide. It should have a firm texture with a spread of jam or a similarly sweet, sticky spread between the layers and usually takes between 4 to 6 hours to prepare.
How much is Kek Lapis Sarawak and where can I buy it?
A typical ‘roll’ of Kek Lapis Sarawak sells for RM15 to RM30, but a full one weighing around 2kg can cost up to RM250. This might sound expensive, but look at the hard work it takes to make one delicious layered cake, and bite into those layers of melt-in-your-mouth flavours. We aren’t complaining and we don’t think you will either!
Rolls of Kek Lapis Sarawak (Sarawak Layer cake) packaged for sale. Source: HappyFresh
Don’t forget to try these sweet treats during your next trip to Sarawak! You can pick them up from many stores, like Maria Kek Lapis, Mira Cake House, Liza Kek Lapis, and Kek Lapis Dayang Salhah.
No matter what type of Kek Lapis Sarawak you try, whether it has plain, ordinary layers or features complicated patterns and motifs, just remember it has taken absolute patience to create the perfect cake.
So next time you bite into an authentic Sarawak layer cake, remember to savour every moment and appreciate the work that went into making this delicious treat.