Today is the end of Ramadan, the fasting month for my Malay friends and to mark this Hari Raya day, I made a Peranakan delicacy called Steamed Kueh Lapis Sagu. When I was growing up in Singapore, every Hari Raya my next door neighbor, a Malay family, would spruce up their home with new curtains and rugs, wax and polish their terrazo floor to a beautiful shine and host a traditional “open house” at their home for all their friends and neighbors. The highlight for me is always the food – the explosively flavorful and tender beef rendang, the crispy prawn crackers and the many beautiful home-made Peranakan kuehs (cakes) which they served to their guests. There are many kinds of kuehs – the white and green Kueh Salat, the coconut-palm sugar pancake called Kueh Dadar, the round balls bursting with flavor called Ondeh-ondeh and the rainbow-hued Kueh Lapis Sagu. Made from coconut milk and pandan leaves, Kueh Lapis Sagu is delightfully fragrant and beautiful to look at. Depending on the skill (and patience) of the cook, sometimes it comes in layers of purple, red, pink, yellow, green and white but often times it is only in layers of green, white and pink. Its Chinese name is “9 Layer Cake” (九层糕) because it is supposed to have 9 layers of the different colors.
Like many children of my generation, I enjoyed the game of eating Kueh Lapis Sagu by gently peeling the layers off one by one to see how many layers I could peel off without breaking the kueh, savoring every bite as I work my way through each layer.
When I lived overseas, for many years I had missed eating this kueh. Recently, my friend Janet shared her recipe with me and to my surprise, the kueh is really quite easy to make… but it does take quite a bit of patience because it has to be steamed one layer at a time – definitely, a labor of love!
3/4 cup rice flour
1 and 1/4 cup tapioca flour
1 and 1/4 cup sugar
3 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
red food coloring
green food coloring
green pandan paste
- Mix all the ingredients and stir well. Gently sieve the batter to get rid of clumps.
- Divide the batter into 3 portions:
Red (add 1/8 tsp red coloring to the batter)
Green (add 1/8 tsp green pandan paste to the batter)
White (add 1/8 tsp clear pandan essence to the batter)
- Lightly rub cooking oil on the base and sides of a square or oblong glass casserole dish. (A glass dish allows you to see that the layers have even thickness. The casserole dish has to be deep enough to make 9 layers of kueh)
- Steam each layer for 5 mins on high heat. Wait for each layer to be fully cooked before you add a new layer.
- Color sequence for the layers: green, white, red
- Wait for the kueh to cool completely before cutting into slices. Tip: If the kueh is too difficult to cut, gently grease your knife with cooking oil.
Note: Each layer is supposed to be of the same thickness. As you can see from the first picture, my layers were of uneven thickness. I started out with the good intention of making 9 layers of uniform thickness. The steaming process got a bit tedious and as I was rushing to run an errand, I shortened my cooking time by pouring on progressively thicker layers of batter, ending up with only 7 layers but it was still very delicious.