Tuesday, June 12, 2012

ma lai koh (malay cake) modern version

It's that time again, when Biren  and I put on our thinking caps, crank up the stove or oven and start rifling though our recipe notes to bring you another Nona Nona collaboration! This time round, I said "Chinese kueh"! And of course, Biren being the trooper she is, immediately said "yes!", even as she was probably thinking, "Oh boy! What crazy sounding substitutions will I have to make this time??!"

Well, I don't know, because haven't you heard? Biren and I jump into each Nona Nona episode with nothing more than an idea, theme, ingredient or cooking style in mind, always not knowing what the other will come up with!

Will we both do the same thing? Will we go the other way and come up with shockingly different takes?!? The tension and uncertain, is surprisingly, one of the most fun aspects of our joint monthly undertaking!

click image to find out all about Nona Nona
Trot over to Biren's kitchen at Roti N Rice, if you want to know, because right now, I can't tell you anything myself!! Sure, we could make it easier and ensure there will be no recipe duplicates by telling each other what we will make, but where's the fun in that?!

And yes, it makes for some anxious moments, but we wouldn't have it any other way, would we, Biren? ;)

If you know me, you will know I love contradictions. I should, being a walking, talking, breathing contradiction (or so says hubs) myself. You know I'm going somewhere with this, right? *grin* This is a Cantonese cake, very simple, nothing more than a steamed sponge, really, that you will find on dim sum trolleys from Singapore, to Malaysia, to Hong Kong and a few other places, besides.

Generally, wherever you find a thriving Cantonese community, you will find Ma Lai Koh or Ma Lai Go. Ma Lai is Chinese for "Malay" and koh is "cake", so "ma lai koh" is Malay cake. Yes and no. Make no mistake, this is a Chinese cake but the Chinese have named it Malay cake in reference to the beautiful honeyed brown skin tones prevalent in the Malay community. A nicely turned contradiction makes my skin tingle, but then I'm geeky like that, aren't I Rube? ;)

There are several versions of ma lai koh out there, yeasted, unyeasted, light and dark. I have opted to make the dark and unyeasted version, because I don't fancy babysitting a yeasted batter for anything up to 3 days and I like my cakes dusky, rather than pale. The traditional yeasted version is unbelievably tedious, but I must concede it has an amazing honey combed texture and an intriguing flavour begotten of a long and slow fermentation.

The Cantonese favour a pale golden cake, coloured only by egg yolks, but this darker version made with brown sugar and often, dark soy sauce (yum!) is increasingly popular, and as you now know is, in my humble opinion, the better rendition of this old school treat. You may disagree, if you are a ma lai koh purist, but here, we will have to agree to disagree; I am quite intractable when it comes to my soy sauce, and as much as I will wait hours or even overnight for my yeasted wheat loaves, when there's cake to be eaten, I won't wait a minute longer than I have to!

It may sound strange to add something so clearly savoury as dark, salty soy to a sweet cake, but the soy adds an intriguing and contrary savoury, malty note that I find wickedly addictive. I did tell you about my contradiction fetish didn't I? Really, it's not so strange when you start thinking about salted caramel, pretzel cookies, chocolate dipped potato chips or candied bacon, is it?

You don't have to add the soy if it truly freaks you out,  but I never make this without it and it really, really (cross my heart and hope to choke on a slice) is wonderful with the vanilla. You have to whisk the living daylights out of the eggs to get a really good, thick foam and a high rising cake, and please use cake flour if you have it. I ran out and used regular flour, so sadly, I didn't get my usual sky high rise :( If you don't have cake flour on hand, use 1/3 corn flour or custard powder and 2/3 plain flour. Believe me, much as I hate fussy recipes, in this case it makes a difference!

I ate tons of ma lai koh as a kid, especially during the weekly pasar malams (night bazaars) on Thursday evenings in Kampung Eunos, where I grew up. My grandmother and I would do our usual "cake walk" up and down the row of kueh sellers, hawking their treats under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent light tubes which probably made everything look ghoulishly bright to the adults, but called to me, like a dancing flame to a moth!

I almost always pointed at the puteri salat (steamed glutinous rice topped with coconut, pandan and egg custard) and ma lai koh slabs. Every time I steam a tray of this, it takes me right back to my 7 year old self, nose pressed up against the glass display case, willing the pandan, coconut and dark sugar scent molecules to squeeze themselves through the glass so I could breathe in their rich, heady bouquet! Hmm....seems like I may have more than just the one fetish ;)


  1. Beautiful cake. I think I made something similar in texture once, and it was called English steamed pudding, so no soy sauce. I bet my bf will love the sweet and salty combo! Have to give this recipe a try :-). Let's see what Biren is cooking ;-)

  2. I have to admit that I had to run downstairs to ask my mom (so good to be able to do that, at least for these two weeks) what is the difference between kei tan koh and ma lai koh. In fact, she just bought some kei tan koh. She said ma lai koh is with santan, at least here in Malaysia. I think there is also the pandan version. Makes me want to run to the pasar malam tonight to buy some ma lai koh to night :D

    This time I did not have to use any crazy substitutions for my kuih but I did have to make a special trip to the Indian grocery store for frozen fresh grated coconut. Not the best but it will have to do. Used part of it for my pulut inti :)

  3. Honestly, I've only tried it once & it was on a food tasting event for Today's paper. I'm so suah koo. Hahaha! Love your presentation & throw me some please........ I haven't had my bfast! Hey Denise, replied your mail. Did u get it? Oh, my class has been confirmed. 9.30am - 12.30pm.

  4. I never thought hard about Ma Lai Koh - being a popular Chinese (Cantonese) cake yet named as Ma Lai (Malay) cake! Next time, must really think more about the food I am eating....;p

  5. LOL! Like you, I don't fancy babysitting a yeasted batter, so I'm definitely bookmarking your recipe :-D AND I'm game for that dark soy sauce in a sweet snack ;-)

  6. What a delightful treat! I don't think I have ever tried a cake that included soy sauce, but it sounds lovely :)
    Will have to go visit Biren today as well...so behind :(

  7. Denise, I just finished reading this post & I'm going OMG you grew up in Kampung Eunos! I did too. What a small world. :) I believed my parents moved to Kampung Eunos probably in early 1950's. I was born in the late 1950's in an attap roofed house with a shared outhouse & a public water faucet used by the kampung folks. You are much younger than me so I doubt you have experienced the kampung life with no electricity, & running water till the early 1960's. We moved away in 1968.

    I'm one of your like/friend on your FB.

    Katherine Grant


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