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steamed tapioca cake with coconut milk

steamed tapioca cake (with coconut milk layers)

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 my mom’s version of the Toisan steamed tapioca cake. She alternates the brown sugar layers with coconut milk layers, which give the cake extra fragrance and flavor that I absolutely love. If you’re looking for the more traditional version that has just the brown sugar layers, you can find that classic steamed tapioca cake here.

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).

Coconut milk and whole milk (or plant-based milk)

The more traditional version of this cake doesn’t usually include coconut milk. But it’s how my mom likes it, and how I prefer it nowadays! The coconut flavor here complements the dried and shredded coconut topping, and it creates beautiful alternating layers.


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

Check out these other delicious desserts:

If you enjoyed this Toisan steamed tapioca cake…

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steamed tapioca cake with coconut milk

Toisan Steamed Tapioca Cake (with Coconut Milk Layers)

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)
4.86 from 7 votes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Course Dessert
Cuisine Chinese
Servings 4


Sugar water batter

  • 185 g Chinese brown sugar slabs (6.5 oz; if using granulated brown sugar, use 30% less)
  • 300 ml water (~1 1/4 cup)
  • 120 g tapioca flour or starch (~1 cup)

Milk batter

  • 200 ml full-fat unsweetened coconut milk (1/2 can)
  • 125 ml milk (~1/2 cup; whole milk or plant-based milk)
  • 80 g tapioca flour or starch (~2/3 cup)


  • shredded or dried coconut
  • toasted sesame seeds
  • jujube / red dates optional
  • peanuts optional


Prepare the two batters

  • In a pot, boil the water and brown sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved. Set aside and let it cool for at least 5 minutes. My mom likes to cool it for longer, as she says it makes the brown sugar layers more transparent and beautiful.
    185 g Chinese brown sugar slabs, 300 ml water
  • For the sugar water batter: In a large bowl, add tapioca flour and the cooled brown sugar water. Give this a good mix until all the tapioca starch has dissolved.
    120 g tapioca flour or starch
  • For the milk batter: In a second bowl, add tapioca flour. Give the can of coconut milk a good shake, then add 1/2 of the can. Lastly, add your milk of choice. Give this a good mix until all the tapioca starch has dissolved.
    200 ml full-fat unsweetened coconut milk, 125 ml milk, 80 g tapioca flour or starch

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 there's plenty of steam and that 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, turn the heat up a bit to generate more steam.
  • Give the milk batter a mix, then ladle the milk batter as the second layer. Steam for another 3-4 minutes or until the layer has solidified. The milk layers should look opaque and white after steaming.
  • Keep alternating 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. You should finish with the sugar water layer (brown).
  • Once it’s all done steaming, let it cool slightly before adding the toasted sesame seeds and dried coconut on top.
    shredded or dried coconut, toasted sesame seeds, jujube / red dates, peanuts

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 steamed tapioca cake, steamed tapioca layer cake, tapioca layer cake, toisan steamed tapioca cake
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!


  1. 5 stars
    It’s so good that I’ve made this three times now! Definitely eat it the next day at room temperature. It helps the sweetness mellow out and the texture more palatable.

  2. 4 stars
    Cannot wait to try this – Thanks for sharing.

    Just wanted to ask what the purpose is the whole milk is? Is it possible to leave it out and just use coconut milk?

  3. 5 stars
    Thank you for this delicious recipe that brought back so many of my childhood memories! I love the coconut milk layer. My parents and toddler are huge fans of this; we ate this the following day at room temperature. We’re definitely making this again.

  4. 5 stars
    This was delicious and it brought back memories of my grandma making this cake! I made it yesterday for dessert and just made another one this morning for more family. Thank you for sharing your recipe!

  5. 5 stars
    So delicious!!! How long do you think it can last in the refrigerator?

  6. 5 stars
    the absolutely perfect “not so sweet” dessert ! this was my first time making and having it, loved the chewy texture! thanks for sharing this recipe and helped impress my ILs 😅

  7. Eleisawifelife

    Can I use glutinous rice flour instead of tapioca flour/starch? I have tons of the glutinous rice flour for when I make my white nian gao. Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to make for my parents.

    • Hi Eleisa! Glutinous rice flour typically gets you a more mochi-like texture, so it would be quite different from the tapioca version! I haven’t tried it, but if you do, let me know!

  8. 5 stars
    First time making it and it turned out great for me! I have a makeshift steamer set up so It took longer than the 3-4 mins of streaming for each layer but with a little patience, voila!

    I brought it to a CNY celebration with my (toisan) family and they all enjoyed it. My aunties and uncles all reminisced on when grandmother made it.

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