Coasters? Printing blocks? These intricate desserts are a Malaysian cake named Kek Lapis Sarawak, also known as the Sarawak Layer Cake. Used for weddings, birthdays and other religious or cultural occasions it has become a staple of the local cuisine, with each layer being baked individually and altogether taking four to eight hours. The designs of these complex pastries contain incredible geometric designs; recurring patterns and bold colours which heavily reflect the bustling almost tribal atmosphere around the environment. Almost too good to eat.
A full 2kg can cost as much as 250 RM (60 pounds), which is a sizeable amount but who can resist these miniature pieces of delectable art. However the sky-high price can be seen to be due to the acute difficulty of perfecting the craft. This is no easy task to create and is entirely dependent on the complexity of the design and the skill of the baker. From baking soft puffy layers in deep pans to each individual layer spending about 10 minutes in the oven, it seems that creating the colourful sponge is only half of the equation. The part of utmost importance is the cutting of the layers and reassembly in complex patterns either with condensed milk or jam acting as adhesive. Just one mistake can ruin a design leaving you with fruitless hours of toiling in the kitchen. In many ways this seems to encapsulate the idea of honing a craft; seasoned bakers will say that it takes considerable amounts of time to perfect this delicacy.
Even when creating pieces, drawing the patterns and planning the designs they won't necessarily turn out well pointing to the artistic and logical thinking combined with lively imagination which takes no effort to be envisioned in each vibrant cross-section. One youngster posted his mother's detailed blueprint for Kek Lepis Sarawak and it seems like even Albert Einstein would have difficulty deciphering the pastry enigma, with multiple diagrams and complex equations.
This traditional kaleidoscopic cake's origins can be found in an layer cake from Indonesia called Lapis Legit, using various spices native to the country. It was said to be influenced by the wives of Dutch administrators during the colonial period and served during evening tea. Introduced to Sarawa in 1970s and 80s from Jakarta, the Sarawa people added their own flavours, ingredients and colours to create an entirely different
It's interesting to note that Kek Lapis Sarawak has been protected in Malaysia as a protected geographical indication in 2010. This means that any product may only be called "Kek Lapis Sarawak/Sarawak layer cake" if it is manufactured in Sarawak according to the specifications of the Sarawak Layer Cake Manufacturers Association. Even similiarly manufactured cakes 'Kek Lapis Sarawak' cannot be labelled in that way if it is not made in Sarawak. Products made outside of the state can only legally name their products Sarawak-style layer cake.
So next time you're in Malaysia, this spectrum of patisserie of delights should be on the bucket list and an appreciation of the local artisan culture. With each one being so sure to be different, why not taste the entire rainbow.