A look at kue lapis and layer cakes in Asia
Kue/kueh/kuih lapis is an Indonesian sweet snack popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar/Burma, and Suriname. It’s made using rice flour, tapioca flour, coconut milk, sugar, salt, and food colouring.
The lapis portion of the name is Indonesian and Malay for ‘layers’. This is, of course, because the snack has many layers. The word kue takes its name from the Chaozhou/Teochew (潮州) Chinese pronunciation of the character/word 粿, a steamed rice cake. It is thought that the layer cakes in Asia became popular via the introduction of chimney/spit-roasted cakes, also made in layers, which were popular amongst Dutch colonizers in the region (Dutch East Indies).
When I spoke with my mum, she mentioned that 粿 is only really used by people in this area and also in some parts of Northern China. That’s not to say that other regions don’t also have steamed rice cakes, but it was very popular in areas of Minnan/Southern Min/Banlam/閩南語 dialects. This group of dialects includes areas such as Fujian, Eastern Guangdong, Hainan, and Southern Zhejiang . Emigrants from these areas will also see the use of this character used in nomenclature, including Taiwan and the places where kue lapis is found.
The rest of China tends to utilise the character 糕 instead. In Minnan dialects, this character is mostly used for wheat-based snacks as opposed to rice-based, such as sponge cakes/蛋糕. To add to the confusion, kue lapis to most Chinese people from China is literally ‘nine-layer cake/九层糕’, utilising the character 糕.
Wheat-based layer cakes
And then there is also the ‘thousand-layer cake/千层糕’, which looks different in each Chinese region/diaspora region. These tend to be wheat-based, in Indonesia and surrounding areas (former Dutch East Indies). It’s called kuih lapis legit, kek lapis Betawi (Betawi being the old name for Jakarta) but I have also seen it translate as cake lapis and spekkoek (meaning pork belly cake in Dutch, due to the layers).
There is also the kek lapis Sarawak which comes from the Sarawak region of Malaysia. The layers in this cake tend to be more complex looking more like a kaleidoscope of patterns. The cake is reserved for special occasions due to the amount of effort required to make it. Additionally, kek lapis Sarawak is a protected name for cakes made specifically in the Sarawak region . Any other cakes which look similar can only claim to be Sarawak-style.
And finally, I’ll bring my own frame of reference to this story of layer cakes in the form of the Hong Kong dim sum style ‘thousand layer cake’. This cake contains layers of wheat sponge and a filling containing salted egg yolk and custard powder amongst other things. It’s now hard to find this so if you know a place that sells this, go visit!
This article has been kindly inspired and proofread by Wei Chieh, also known as @kit.eats.uk on IG. Please follow him for more informative content!
 The official portal of the Sarawak Government (26 August 2014) Sarawak Crest. Available at: https://sarawak.gov.my/web/home/news_view/223/3776/ (Accessed: November 26, 2022).