Cover A Malay sponge cake showcasing the coveted 'Qilin pattern' on its surface (Photo: Mr Utterly Wong/Flickr)

A beloved staple of dim sum cuisine, this steamed pastry is deceivingly complex in more ways than one

"Ma lai go, ma lai go!" The waitress calls out amidst a packed, fluorescent-lit dining room as she hoists a large bamboo steamer from the kitchen. As diners scramble from their tables to inspect the new arrival, the waitress removes the lid in one swift upward motion, letting burst a plume of scalding steam which dissipates to reveal a smooth dome of fluffy dough the size of a serving tray, coloured a uniform peanut brown and marked by shallow, scale-like striations known as a 'Qilin pattern'. Such a scene repeats itself a dozen times each day at Lin Heung Teahouse in Sheung Wan, a veritable time capsule of old dim sum culture and one of the foremost restaurants to try Malay sponge cake, or ma lai go in Cantonese—a quotidian and delicious dim sum that many Hongkongers recall growing up with, yet few know of its origins.

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Despite the name quite explicitly tying it to Malaysia, there remain several murky theories surrounding the birth of ma lai go, all of which speak to the centuries-long history of Chinese migration and Western colonialism in the South China Sea. Its airy, sponge-like structure hints at its roots in European pastries such as the Victoria sponge cake, popular in Britain during the reign of the eponymous monarch and likely imported to British Malaya.

The sponge cake likely spread from the households of British colonial administrators into the general Malaysian populace who, lacking the ovens that were so foreign to Asian gastronomy, adapted the recipe to be made by steaming instead. Milk was also replaced with coconut milk, while pandan leaves were added for that inimitable Peranakan flavour.

Eventually, the recipe travelled to Guangdong, where it was again adapted: coconut milk was reverted back to cow's milk, and pandan leaves (now foreign themselves) were dropped due to the difficulty in their procurement. Today, the name remains the most overt clue to the Malay sponge cake's ocean-crossing history, and curiously, it has become a rarity in its supposed homeland of Malaysia, perhaps having been absorbed into the sweets-making tradition of kuih.

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What makes a good Malay sponge cake

On the surface, ma lai go is a seemingly straightforward dim sum to make. Traditionally made using flour, eggs, white or brown sugar, and levain (a fermented leavening agent), it does not require the complex folding or shaping that other types of dim sum, such as siu mai and har gao, require.

The secret, however, is in the levain, which is made from a mixture of water, flour and beer, and left to rest over one or two nights. Although more labour-intensive than modern recipes that use baking soda instead, the levain enhances the chewy and fluffy texture of the cake, and can be identified from the streaky air pockets found in a slice. The finished product should be moist and springy—you'll know it's a good cake from you can finish a slice without having to sip on water or tea in between. Those in the know will reach for the slices cut from the edges, as they offer the best ratio of firmer skin to moist interior (as opposed to the middle portions, which are almost all sponge).

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Where to try

Though restaurants that still use the traditional overnight method to make Malay sponge cake are dwindling in number, excellent examples can still be savoured at older establishments such as Lin Heung Teahouse and Sun Hing Restaurant in Kennedy Town. Others still are updating this crowd-pleaser with subtle variations, such as a Okinawa black sugar version at The Royal Garden, or a pandan version at Dim Sum Bar, which fittingly brings the Malay sponge cake full circle.

Lin Heung Teahouse, 160 Wellington Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong; +852 2544 4556

Sun Hing Restaurant, G/F, Markfield Building, 8 Smithfield Road, Sai Wan, Hong Kong; +852 2816 0616

China Tang, Shop 4101, 4/F, Gateway Arcade, Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; +852 2157 3148

The Royal Garden Restaurant, Basement 2, The Royal Garden, 69 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui East, Hong Kong; +852 2724 2666

Dim Sum Bar, Shop G103, The Gateway, 25 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; +852 2175 3100

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