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 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
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:
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Toisan Steamed Tapioca Cake (with Coconut Milk Layers)
Sugar water batter
- 185 g Chinese brown sugar slabs (6.5 oz; if using granulated brown sugar, use 30% less)
- 300 ml water (~1 ¼ cup)
- 120 g tapioca flour or starch (~1 cup)
- 200 ml full-fat unsweetened coconut milk (½ can)
- 125 ml milk (~½ cup; whole milk or plant-based milk)
- 80 g tapioca flour or starch (~⅔ 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 ½ 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.