A Cake With An Unusual Ingredient

Simple and not-too sweet. A perfect pick-me-up with Chinese tea.

Simple and not-too sweet. A perfect pick-me-up with Chinese tea.


This cake is like the vanilla wafer of cookies.

Its appeal lies in its plainness, simplicity, and for me, its nostalgic taste.

Other kids may have grown up with snack cakes baked in a square or rectangular pan in the flavors of chocolate, vanilla or apple spice.

But I grew up eating this pale golden sponge cake that was steamed, and bought by my Mom at Chinatown bakeries. It usually came in tall squares or big wedges, its interior sporting tiny, airy bubbles. I could never resist squishing a corner of it between my fingers before taking a bite.

It was the polar opposite of a birthday cake. It was unadorned, plain-Jane, and hardly sweet at all. But unlike birthday cake, I didn’t have to wait for a special occasion to enjoy it, just a regular trip by my Mom to pick up other provisions in Chinatown. She brought it home in the familiar pink box tied with red twine that I tore into the moment she walked through the door.

I have eaten countless squares of that cake, yet I never knew it included a rather surprising ingredient: soy sauce.


That is, until I spotted a recipe for it in the new cookbook, “All Under Heaven” (Ten Speed Press and McSweeney’s), of which I received a review copy.

This comprehensive tome (which boasts 514 pages) is written and illustrated by Carolyn Phillips, a Bay Area food writer, who was a professional Mandarin interpreter for federal and state courts, and lived in Taiwan for eight years, who married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago. She’s also the creator of the blog, Madame Huang’s Kitchen.

This is one of those books destined to be on your bookshelf. It’s an impressive resource that’s a wealth of information and recipes for anyone who loves Chinese food.

Phillips has not only cooked her way through 35 regional cuisines (from the Manchurian Northeast to the Yangtze River to the Central Highlands to the arid lands), but researched their origins in Chinese, no less.

As such, the cookbook is full of insightful, wonderful stories about the dishes, often told with sly humor. Writing about the lamb dish of “Tasimi,” Phillips writes, “Nearly every story about the origin of a Beijing dish winds up in the dowager empress’s lap for some reason. I’m not quite sure why, but there you have it…”

The book is full of dishes that will be both familiar and new to people, including “Xiolongbao” (soup dumplings), “Toffee Apples,” “Fried Custard with Mushrooms,” and “Crispy Silk Gourd Crepes.”

For “Malay Sponge Cake,” you stir together a quite thin batter of eggs, sugar, vegetable oil, milk, cake flour, baking powder and a tablespoon of soy sauce, then pour it into a cake pan set inside a steamer. My cake took about 8 minutes longer to steam than the directed 15 minutes. But do check yours with a toothpick inserted into the center to determine doneness. It’s better to err on the side of over-steaming than under-steaming. Since this cake cooks in a moist environment, it won’t dry out if you steam it a little longer.

It’s the soy sauce that gives this fluffy cake its slightly golden color and a hint of savoriness that compliments its none-too-sweet nature.

It’s a perfect afternoon snack with Chinese tea, when you need a little treat that’s not going to weigh you down or send you on a sugar-high.

Phillips writes more on this cake in her pocket-size companion book, “The Dim Sum Field Guide” (Ten Speed Press), of which I also received a review copy. This is not a cookbook; there are no recipes included. But it is a handy guide for learning all about dim sum. Each entry includes information about each dim sum specialty, including how to identify it, what its origins are, what the filling is, and what sauce should accompany it. Each item is illustrated with a drawing of the dish by Phillips. You’ll spot well-known favorites such as siu mai, which date back to the Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368); and more unusual items such as “Creamy Cabbage Casserole” fortified with dried scallops or minced Chinese ham, which is likely a variation on a British dish.


Likewise, the Malay cake, popularized in Hong Kong and Guangdong, is thought to be a riff on the English sponge cake.

My husband, who did not grow up eating this cake like I did, likened it to a Twinkie without the filling, which just made me laugh.

A Twinkie may be made to last forever (or so we joke), but this delicate Chinese sponge cake never lasts longer than a day in my house. It’s a taste of childhood that I never tire of revisiting.

The cake just out of the steamer.

The cake just out of the steamer.

Malay Sponge Cake

(Serves 8 10 12)

Spray oil

2 large eggs, at room temperature

6 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

7 tablespoons milk (whole or low-fat)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

1 cup cake flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder


Prepare a steamer. Heat the water in the steamer to boiling, then reduce the heat to low. Spray an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan with oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Use a mixer to whisk the eggs until light and airy, and then slowly beat in the sugar until the mixture is light and lemon colored. Beat in the oil, milk, vanilla, and soy sauce. In a separate bowl, toss together the flour and baking powder and then beat them into the egg mixture until the batter does not have any lumps.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and steam the cake for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack, then turn it out of the pan and cut it into wedges to serve.

From “All Under Heaven” by Carolyn Phillips


More Dim Sum Fun: Baked Char Siu Baos


And: Chinese Sausage Focaccia


And: Momofuku Pork Belly Buns


And: Almond Cookies


And: Almond “Tofu” with Fruit Cocktail


And: Portuguese Custard Tarts


And: My Dad’s Foil-Wrapped Chicken

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