The story behind Sarawak’s most delicious import (and export).
Believe it or not, okay maybe this won’t come as a surprise after all, but the original kek lapis is actually from our neighbouring country Indonesia. The story goes that during the 1970s and 1980s, the Betawi people of Indonesia came to Sarawak and taught the locals how to make the popular kek lapis Betawi.
However, the originators of the spiced Betawi cake were the wives of the Dutch administrators who were stationed in Batavia (the old name for Jakarta). They created a cake recipe with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and star anise to be served during evening teas. Locals promptly picked up the recipe and thus began the spread of the kek lapis Betawi to Sarawak and Johor.
While Johoreans still stay close to the original flavours of the kek lapis Betawi in their cuisine – deviations don’t stray too far from traditional local flavours like dates, prunes, durian, and cempedak – the kek lapis of Sarawak has taken a different route, with each baker getting more and more creative with their renditions of the cake. Infusing Western cake-making techniques and flavours, the bakers created kek lapis that wasn’t only moist, but also incorporated almost all possible flavours under the sun.
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Modern kek lapis Sarawak can be divided into two categories: cakes with ordinary layers and cakes with patterns, motifs, or shapes. However, all kek lapis must have at least two colours and can be baked in an oven or microwave. The batter uses butter or vegetable oil, milk and eggs, and requires a strong arm or electric mixer to be properly prepared. The baked cake has a high, firm texture and the layers are fastened together with jam or a similarly sticky sweet substance. More detailed cakes often require special moulds to maintain the perfect layer thickness.
Good news for Malaysians, since 2010, this edible heritage has been selected as a Protected Geographical Indication of Sarawak, meaning that only the layered cakes that come out of the state following the specifications of the Sarawak Kek Lapis Entrepreneurs Association are allowed to be labelled as ‘kek lapis Sarawak’. So, if manufacturers of outside of Sarawak were to produce kek lapis they may only call their cakes ‘Sarawak-style kek lapis‘.
The kek lapis competition is strife in Kuching, as the dish that was once only made to mark special occasions is now a favourite souvenir for tourists. Although many small bakeries can be found scattered all over the city, Jalan Brooke in Kuching is an especially famous destination for the layered delicacy. Let’s take a look at the 3 leading kek lapis makers in Jalan Brooke to visit the next time you’re in town.
The kek lapis at Dayang Sallah fall more on the drier side and less on the moist. But that’s okay because they make up for that with their wide variety. They also serve as a formidable opponent for the other two kek lapis juggernauts in the street.
Arguably the most famous kek lapis store in Malaysia, with even a branch in Semenanjung Malaysia at Dato’ Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, this bakery is where most tourists head to. Known for the wacky names they give to their kek lapis, Mira Cake House also boasts the most number of kek lapis varieties to be found in Kuching.
This little bakery, on the other hand, is a favourite amongst the locals. They don’t have as many varieties as the other two aforementioned bakeries but they specialise in making more traditional forms of kek lapis that the older generation and locals prefer.
Jalan Brooke, where these kek lapis stores are found, is also where you can find freshly-caught fishes and crustaceans, so the street definitely warrants a visit!
Do you have a favourite vendor among the three already? Let us know in the comments section! Also check out our compilation of places to get Sarawak’s other great export – the Sarawak laksa.
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