One of the things I love about strolling around in hawker centres and food markets in Malaysia is the sheer array of colours on display. Foodstuffs of all hues adorn the stalls, catching the eye and beckoning you over to buy. And the brightest of these comestibles is usually the Nyonya Kuih – a selection of colourful Malaysian cakes and desserts that you can’t help but love. Everyone seems to have their favourite, and one of mine is Kuih Lapis.
Kuih Lapis is a multi-layered steamed cake made from tapioca and rice flours, and usually flavoured with pandan. The multiple layers tend to have different colours, making this kuih something that easily catches the eye of shoppers and those hungry for a sweet treat. As well as brightening up food markets, they are also often available at hotel breakfast buffets throughout Malaysia, and I’m certainly one of those breakfasters who hover around the Nyonya Kuih area waiting for the refills.
Traditionally the layers alternate between plain white and a bright pink, with a darker layer on the top, though I have seen other combinations, including a white, green and pink version that seems to be popular. They layers are created by pouring small amounts of batter into a tray and then steaming, adding the next layer after the current layer has firmed up. For my recipe I use a non-stick 22cm diameter round cake pan to cook the kuih in, and steam it in a 25cm diameter round bamboo steamer. Depending on what trays and steaming setup you have, you will need to tweak the recipe to your needs. For reference, the ingredients listed below will make around 800ml of batter when combined, so make sure your tray can either hold that much liquid, or change the ratio of the ingredients as needed.
Ang Moh’s Kuih Lapis Recipe
Serves 6, or 4 Malaysians
400ml coconut milk
220g white sugar
210g tapioca flour
75g rice flour
1/2 tsp salt
either 4 tsp pandan powder, or 6 knotted pandan leaves
food colourings, traditionally bright pink and dark orange are used
Mix the coconut milk, water, sugar and salt in a saucepan, and gently bring it to the boil. If you’re using pandan leaves, drop the knots into the mixture; if you’re using pandan powder, add it to the mix now. Gently simmer for around 5 minutes to dissolve the sugar and get some fragrance out of the pandan. Then set aside, and let the mixture cool down. Sift the tapioca flour and rice flour into a mixing bowl.
When the coconut milk mixture has cooled down to lukewarm/room temperature, gradually pour it into the mixed flours whilst stirring. Continue stirring until the mixture is smooth, and all the flour has been incorporated. Now comes time to separate the mixture, so we can create the different coloured layers. Using the ingredients listed here, you should have around 800ml of mixture to work with. If you have a bit less than this, you can add some more water into the mixture to bulk it out. I personally have alternating white and pink layers, and a dark red/orange layer on top, and I allow 100ml of mixture per layer. This means the layers will be slightly thicker than you will usually find in Malaysia, but you can try using 80ml instead and having more layers.
I divide my mixture into 400ml of plain white, 300ml of bright pink and 100ml of dark red/orange for the top layer, but colours are entirely up to you.
Now comes the time to set up your steamer. Overall steaming time will be around 1 hour, so make sure you have enough water and the steamer will not go dry. Get the steamer up to temperature, and then add 100ml of the first mixture into the pan, making sure it covers the entire bottom, and steam for around 8 minutes. Now pour in 100ml of the second mixture into the pan, and steam for another 8 minutes. Repeat this procedure, alternating between the 2 mixtures, until both are used up. Finish off with the mixture for the darker top layer, and leave the thing to steam for another 20 minutes.
Take the pan out of the steamer and leave to cool down to room temperature. Then place in the fridge for at least 4 hours before slicing into diamonds, rectangles, or whatever shapes you wish. Enjoy, and try not to eat them all in one sitting!
Main image courtesy of Dr Ooi of Tanjung Bungah, Penang