kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake
A bamboo steamer basket with a large piece of steamed sponge cake rising up out of it.  The cake is a light brown colour due to the use of a small amount of soy sauce in the batter.  The very open crumb of the cake shows how well-risen and light it is.

Fittingly, the final dim sum dish I'm posting about this month is a dessert — 馬來糕, which is a steamed sponge cake. The pinyin is mǎ lái gāo, the Cantonese is ma lai goh, and the English translations I've seen include "sweet sponge cake", "Malaysian sponge cake", and simply "sponge cake". On dim sum menus, this sometimes appears in the steamed section and sometimes in the dessert section.

The literal translation of 馬來糕 is "Malaysian cake" — 馬來 (mǎ lái) is the "Malaysian" part, and as mentioned in my post on 蘿蔔糕/luó bo gāo/loh bak goh/radish cake, 糕 (gāo) refers to some kind of cake. I'm not really sure what the Malaysian connection is, but this is what it's called!

You may see different spellings — 馬拉糕 (mǎ lā gāo) seems to be quite common on the menus I've seen. I'm not sure whether this is best described as a spelling mistake or a spelling variant though. I've also seen it on menus as 牛油馬來糕 (niú yóu mǎ lái gāo), which I think refers to the use of butter as the fat in the cake (牛油 literally means "cow oil"). Another one I've seen is 吉士馬來糕 (jí shì mǎ lái gāo), which I have no idea of the meaning of Carolyn J Phillips tells me refers to the custard powder (吉士粉/jí shì fěn)[1] that forms part of the recipe.

To make this at home, check out Sunflower's ma lai goh recipe. I must admit that I haven't quite got this recipe to work yet. The first time I tried it, I made the full recipe and it never set properly, even when I steamed it for half as long again as the recipe said to. The second time I made half-quantities, which worked better, though it could still have done with a little more steaming and it was nowhere near as light as the one pictured at the top of this post.

I had the one in the picture at Harbour City in London Chinatown, where it was listed on the menu as 牛油馬來糕 — perhaps the use of butter instead of oil had something to do with the lightness, though I would have thought this would affect the flavour more than the texture. Perhaps I simply didn't whisk mine enough.

Edit, June 2011: It's worth also checking out Carolyn J Phillips' 馬來糕 recipe.

1 吉士 is a transliteration of "cheese", and so since cheese and custard both involve milk, 吉士粉 ended up being used for custard powder (I've posted about 粉/fěn before; one of its meanings is "powder"). According to CantoDict, 吉士 is also used in Cantonese to mean "courage".

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2010-08-27 09:07 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (2)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
Where did you hear that 吉士 means courage? O_O To me it sounds like some transliteration - I recently bought something that used 新奇士 for Sunkist, so.

Date: 2010-08-28 08:50 am (UTC)
bob: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bob
cow oil!

Date: 2012-03-10 10:46 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
牛油... standalone translation of the chinese charactor..牛 = cow, 油 = oil/fat, however together 牛油 = butter... cow oil, lol.
Just to confuse people 豬 = pig 油 = oil/fat, 豬油 = lard :p

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