Kings, Cakes, and Cats

Kuching, Sarawak

White Rajah

Our travels along the coast of Malaysian Borneo bring us to the capital city of the state of Sarawak.  Long ago, this land was part of the Bruneian Empire, ruled first by the sultan of Brunei, then ceded to an Englishman named James Brooke as a gift of gratitude for helping the sultan crush a rebellion.  James Brooke later was given the title ‘White Rajah’ due to all he did for the people of Sarawak.  During his reign, he suppressed piracy throughout the area and protected the peaceful, indigenous Dayak tribe from their head-hunting enemies.  Charles Brooke, his successor and nephew, continued developing Sarawak by promoting trade, extending its borders, improving sanitation systems, building hospitals and establishing prisons.  A daytime ride down the river offers glimpses of Kuching’s eventful past, with remnants of the White Rajah’s reign everywhere.

'Kucing' is the Malay word for 'cat', and this city takes its name seriously!  Cat statues can be found at the major roundabouts and all along the boardwalk.  In fact, I have noticed that in most major cities in Malaysia, one animal or symbol has been adopted as a type of mascot.  In Pangkor it was a seashell.  Miri, the seahorse.  Langkawi, the sea eagle.  It's quite charming, really, and a fun way to identify different places.

Cats aren’t the only thing this city is known for, though.  Kek lapis (literally translated layered cake) is their sweet specialty.  The recipe can take up to eight hours to bake, depending on the intricacy of the design.  The most common pattern is narrow stripes of color, created by baking one layer, letting it cool, then adding another layer, baking that one, and so on.   When cut, a rainbow of colors is revealed.  Other patterns are not so simple to figure out.  How did the baker create a basketweave with the colored layers?  I still haven’t sorted that one out!  These cakes are especially popular during the days following Ramadan, the month of fasting.  Who wouldn’t want cake after not eating during daylight hours for 30 days?  Our river boat driver insisted we try one of Kuching’s famous desserts at the oldest bakery in town.   He even dropped us off at the dock nearest the little cake shop and pointed us in the right direction.

When we arrived, the smell of sweet cake greeted us.  A table sat in the center of a room, covered in small containers of bite-sized pieces of kek lapis .  Every color of the rainbow and every flavor you could imagine were on display, and the ladies behind the counter watched in delight as we tried piece after piece.  While Mark was busy videoing the experience, I parked myself right at the sampling table and tried as many as I could!  The kids’ favorites were the Cadbury (yes, pure chocolate) and the Milo (a chocolate milk powder sold throughout SE Asia).  I especially liked the Spiced kek (clove and cinnamon) and the vibrance of the rainbow-colored varieties.  I had read in our tourist guide that this cake can last up to 2 weeks without refrigeration, so I’m sure its full of organic, all-natural goodness - of course!  It was fun to try, though, and we bought a few of our favorites to set out at our next happy hour on board. Want to try to bake kek lapis at home?  Try this recipe.

Before coming to Kuching, I’d never even heard of this city.  This happens often as we travel, actually.  When I tell family where we are, they usually need to pull up Google Maps - always a great geography lesson.  Yet again and again, I am delighted by the specific sights, sounds, tastes and smells that make each place its own.  From Kuching’s White Rajah to its colorful kek lapis, it is a place rich in history and culture.  As our first stop in Sarawak, it has piqued my curiosity and tantalized my tastebuds.  One could say it is the ‘cat’s meow’or that it (ahem) ‘takes the cake’…



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