Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake is a fluffy brown sugar sponge cake typically found on dim sum carts in Southern China and Hong Kong—the few places where you’ll find it done right, and where it’s quite popular.

What is Ma Lai Go?

But whether you call it ma lai go (Cantonese) or ma la gao (马拉糕, or sometimes 马来糕, Mandarin) the ma lai refers to “Malay,” as in Malaysia. The word Gao means cake so “Malaysia cake” is what we’re talking about here, even though it’s been adopted by Cantonese cooking. As the story goes, Ma Lai Go originated in Malaysia via British influence and made its way to Hong Kong where the recipe was modified into what it is today.

The real chefs in Hong Kong use a starter dough or levain to make Ma Lai Go. Making the fermented starter dough is a labor of love and quite the process, so most recipes—including this one—omit the starter dough and increase the baking powder and/or baking soda to get a similar leavening effect without the extra time for fermentation.

Ma Lai Go made with a starter dough has a streaky pattern of air pockets that’s caused by fermentation, so you can immediately tell if your cake was made with or without a fermented starter. The last time I was in Hong Kong, we enjoyed Ma Lai Go a few times at dim sum. All of the cakes were tasty and fluffy *but* without those air pockets. It would seem that it’s a reasonable tradeoff to forego the extra work for a tasty, easy-to-make version (albeit at the expense of a technically “authentic” Ma Lai Go, but what does authentic even mean these days, anyway?).

Maybe one of these days I will have the patience to make my own Ma Lai Go starter dough, but for now, a shortcut! And with the number of times I made this cake, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

For this Ma Lai Go recipe, use an electric mixer to get as much air into the cake as possible. Then let the leavening agents like the baking powder do the work to get a spongy and fluffy cake. Resting time for the batter is minimal, unlike recipes that use the levain starter dough—bonus!

What do I need to make Ma Lai Go steamed cake?

One other note is on flavoring agents. I’ve tried making this recipe with only vanilla, which works fine, but adding vanilla pudding mix—we used Bird’s Custard Powderdefinitely makes for a tastier cake! If you can find it, it really adds that extra layer of flavor you get in restaurants and Chinese Bakeries.

Hope you enjoy this easy-to-make Ma Lai Go recipe!

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go Recipe Instructions

Add 3 large eggs, ¼ cup vegetable oil, and ¾ cup lightly packed dark brown sugar to a mixing bowl. Use an electric mixer, and beat on high for 5 minutes until well-combined and fluffy.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Scrape the bottom of the bowl and add 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract, ⅓ cup evaporated milk, and 1½ tablespoons custard powder. 

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Beat for 1 minute.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Sift 1 cup cake flour, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and 3½ teaspoons baking powder.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Fold into the batter gently until incorporated. Try to break up any large lumps, but don’t overwork the batter––some smaller lumps are okay!

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Let the batter sit for 30 minutes. The dry ingredients absorb, and the baking powder has a chance to do its thing.

How to Steam Ma Lai Go cake

While the batter is resting, line a bamboo steamer basket (9 inch) with parchment paper. For more information on bamboo steamers, wee our post on How to Use a Bamboo Steamer

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

You can also use a 9 inch cake pan greased with vegetable shortening or butter and lightly coated with all-purpose flour. Lightly buttering and flouring the metal cake pan is important step, even if it is non-stick!

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Gently stir the batter again in a folding motion—just enough to ensure the batter is mixed uniformly, but not too much since air pockets have already started to form in the batter. You will also see that the batter has thickened and most lumps have disappeared.

Pour the batter into a bamboo steamer basket lined with parchment paper…

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Or your prepared cake pan.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Let the batter sit and settle for another 10 minutes while you heat up your steamer.

Place the Ma Lai Go into your steamer setup of choice, and steam on medium high heat—for 30 minutes if using a bamboo steamer…

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

And 35 minutes if using a metal cake pan.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

See our post on how to set up a steamer if you’re not familiar with steaming foods in Chinese cooking.

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

To find out if the cake is done, insert a toothpick in the center of the cake. If it come out clean, then it’s done. Transfer to a baking rack and slice once cooled slightly.  

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.comMa Lai Go Chinese Steamed Cake, by thewoksoflife.com

Ma Lai Go is delicious when it’s warm and fresh from the steamer, but I think I may like it even better after it has completely cooled. The texture seems to be a little spongier the next day, which I like!

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