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classic steamed tapioca cake

classic steamed tapioca cake (brown sugar only)

This chewy, fragrant, and lightly-sweet Toisan steamed tapioca cake (菱粉糍), also known as thousand layer cake, is one of the most nostalgic desserts from my childhood! Chinese brown sugar gives this cake a warm golden hue, and the many distinct layers make this dessert not only fun to look at, but fun to eat. It’s usually topped with dried coconut and toasted sesame seeds, and sometimes peanuts and jujubes. To this day, both my grandma and mom make this for almost every special occasion, including Lunar New Year.

Because this steamed cake only uses tapioca flour, it’s a completely gluten-free dessert!

This recipe is the more classic version of the Toisan steamed tapioca cake, made with just brown sugar. My mom also does a delicious steamed tapioca cake that alternates the brown sugar layers with coconut milk layers, which give the cake extra fragrance and flavor that I absolutely love.

What ingredients do I need to make steamed tapioca cake?

There are many version of this steamed and layered cake across Asia, for example Vietnamese banh da lon, and Malaysian kuih lapis. For my mom’s Toisan version of steamed tapioca cake, these are the ingredients you’ll need:

Tapioca starch or flour

tapioca starch

Tapioca starch and flour are the same thing (just different labels). This is what gives this cake the distinct chewy and stretchy texture. You can usually find this at most Asian supermarkets!

Chinese brown sugar slabs

chinese brown sugar

For the most traditional taste, use Chinese brown sugar slabs for this recipe. They’re hard, and they come in rectangular blocks that you can typically find at most Chinese supermarkets. If that’s not easily accessible, you can substitute with golden brown sugar (but use ~30% less, because regular brown sugar is sweeter than Chinese brown sugar).


  • shredded or dried coconut (recommended)
  • toasted sesame seeds (recommended)
  • jujubes or red dates (optional)
  • peanuts (optional)

Check out these other delicious desserts:

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classic steamed tapioca cake

Classic Steamed Tapioca Cake (Brown Sugar Only)

With its beautiful golden hue and many distinct layers, this chewy, fragrant, and lightly-sweet dessert is both stunning to look at and fun to eat!
note: the type of sugar you use will affect the color of the cake; I'm using a golden brown sugar slab for this recipe, but you can use dark or light brown sugar slabs for variations in color (and slight flavor)
4.50 from 2 votes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Course Dessert
Cuisine Chinese
Servings 4


Sugar water:

  • 225 g Chinese brown sugar slabs (8 oz; if using granulated brown sugar, use 30% less)
  • 225 ml water (~1 cup)

Tapioca starch mixture:

  • 225 ml water (~1 cup)
  • 180 g tapioca starch / flour (~1.5 cups)


  • Shredded or dried coconut
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Jujube / red dates optional
  • Peanuts optional


Prepare the batter

  • In a pot, boil the water and brown sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved.
    225 g Chinese brown sugar slabs, 225 ml water
  • In a large bowl, add the tapioca flour and room temp water. Mix until there are no more lumps, then add the hot sugar water. Mix until fully dissolved.
    180 g tapioca starch / flour, 225 ml water

Steam the tapioca cake

  • For a cake height of about 1 inch, you'll want to use a heat-proof dish that's about 6 inches in diameter (I use a glass tupperware, and my mom uses a stainless steel pan). Bring a pan of water to boil, making sure the top of the water doesn’t touch your steaming dish.
  • Brush the inside of the steaming dish with a tiny bit of oil. This will make cake removal and cleanup easier later.
  • Give the brown sugar water mixture a good mix to dissolve any settled tapioca starch (make sure to do this with every layer). Ladle just enough of the brown sugar water to cover the bottom of the dish.
  • Lower the heat to medium, and steam for 3-4 minutes or until the layer has solidified and looks completely translucent. If it looks white or milky, keep steaming it until it's translucent. If the layer has wrinkles, lower the heat a bit. If the layer has a bunch of tiny bubbles in it, it means it's been cooked too long, so reduce the steaming time on the next layer. If it's taking much longer than 3-4 minutes to steam each layer, then turn up the heat a bit to generate more steam.
  • Repeat layer by layer until you’ve run out of batter. Periodically check the water levels in the pan and add more if needed. The last few layers may require 1-2 extra minutes of steaming each.
  • Once it’s all done steaming, let it cool slightly before adding the toasted sesame seeds and shredded coconut on top.
    Shredded or dried coconut, Toasted sesame seeds, Peanuts, Jujube / red dates

Cooling and storage

  • Let the cake cool completely at room temperature (this may take a few hours, and we actually prefer to eat it next day for the best texture).
  • Use a lightly oiled knife to slide around the perimeter of the dish to release the cake. To get the nicest and cleanest cuts, use an oiled cleaver to cut straight down on the cake. Kitchen scissors also work for cutting them into smaller pieces. If you prefer the texture to be on the firmer side, you can refrigerate it before serving, but it’s normally eaten at room temperature.
  • For storage, we store this at room temperature (covered). If you plan to eat this over the next several days, store it in an airtight container, covered, in the fridge. It should last up to 3-4 days. It will be more firm, but you can re-steam it to soften the texture.
Keyword brown sugar steamed tapioca cake, steamed tapioca cake, thousand layer cake, toisan steamed tapioca cake
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!


  1. Taking a lot more than 3-4 min per layer for me & im using a 6” diameter glass bowl.

    • Hi Susan, a few things you can try:

      -try turning up the heat to generate more steam
      -make sure the batter is well-mixed before adding each layer
      -is your pan lid dripping a lot of water / condensation onto the cake? if so, try wrapping a large clean kitchen towel around the lid!

  2. What type of oil do you use to make sure the cake don’t stick?

  3. 5 stars
    This recipe was super easy and yummy and helped me feel a little bit closer to my roots. My non-Asian partner was a big fan of the taste and texture that the layers create. It was a brilliant suggestion to use a glass container, as I didn’t have a baking dish of a suitable size. My container was 5×7 and I ended up with a rather thick cake at 14 layers, taking a little over an hour to steam. Next time, I would size up containers.

    • Hi Justine, great notes and I’m really glad you both enjoyed this! You can also try using a ceramic dish (like a low pasta bowl with 1-2 inches in height), though you may end up with a rounder-bottomed cake.

  4. 4 stars
    Thank you so much for this recipe, detailed instructions and tips! It reminds me so much of my childhood and my mom. I used an 8″ round glass dish that’s 1.5″ high. I got 7 layers, steaming each layer for 4 minutes. =) I will definitely make this again, but reduce the sugar to maybe 6.5 – 7 oz. It was a bit too sweet, but that’s just me.

    • The best thing about recipes are that they are always free to customize to your taste once you’ve tried them! Glad these can remind you of your childhood 🙂 Thank you, Mei!

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