九层糕 Gau Cheng Gou / Jiu Cheng Gao / Kueh Lapis Sagu is one of the myriad forms of KUEH you’ll find in South East Asia, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia. It’s made with rice and tapioca flours, sugar, coconut milk and food colouring. Sometimes, you’ll see a few other flours used like mung bean in different recipes. But essentially, you make this slurry batter thing and steam it off and addon layer by layer, with a different colour every layer and there’s usually, 9 layers.
You can obviously just chew through every layer in a single bite but most people would opt to peel and eat each layer individually. I know I did. What I enjoy about this kueh in particular is that it’s interactive and playful. Individually, the layers all taste the same. Sweet, slightly chewy and sticky, somewhat cloying and mostly boring by the time you get to the bottom. Diminishing returns.
This was a feeling I’d get after the 5th or 6th layer. By the time I got to the bottom, sometimes, I’d feel more like I was completing a simple task or chore rather than eating something delicious. I never wondered about the why. But one thing I did figure out was that there were subtle differences to the layers.
Of course, if you think about it rationally, the layers will be somewhat different. On the one hand, I don’t think many makers weighed out exact amounts per layer. They might have but there’s an inconsistency with the cooking technique and quantities, so each layer will inherently have marginal differences. If you were to produce this consistently, you’d weigh up and all that but still, the lower layers get steamed more than the upper ones. You’d have to steam individually and pile layer on layer, most probably limiting you to the possibility of making rather small kueh. Regardless, this isn’t practical and suffice to say, most people (myself included) will not notice the differences too much and anyway, those minute differences are actually a good thing.
Then there’s the colour thing. Whether it’s 九层糕 or M&M’s, your brain wants to perceive each colour as tasting different. They don’t but then they sorta do. I found myself prioritising particular coloured layers over others. Notably 2 layers stuck out more than any other. The topmost typically red layer and the bottom white thick layer.
I’ve already mentioned that the base has to be the foundation so it has to be thicker, harder and cooked longer. All this translates to is a worse texture. So my instinct to dislike the bottom more than the other layers had a real justification. Because of this very fact, I actually evolved my 九层糕 eating methodology and went bottom up instead. I found this incredibly more rewarding than the typical top down approach. Peeling the bottom off and eating it first got the less awesome bit out the way first and it’s just onwards and upwards from there. If you eat the bottom layer at the end, it’s just the downward slog that some people just end up chucking in the bin. Regrettable.
And what of that prized topmost layer? The red one! It was bright, shiny and attractive. Like the bottom layer, it was different from the rest. Again, I never really thought about why this was exactly. I just knew innately that it was. It’s different because of a few things. The first is thickness. The top layer tends to be the thinnest layer. If you peel it off, it’s semi translucent. It feels more like a fruit roll up. The second is the slick of oil that’s sometimes applied to make it shiny. That only goes on top so you get this pronounced smoothness and richness in the mouth, primarily with the top layer. The third is the somewhat plasticky bite to the top. It’s a little less pliable, a little firmer. At this stage, I’m simply making an educated guess that the top layer post cooking is exposed to more air and sort of dries out a little.
I suppose that last bit is down to the kueh maker. If they oil the top right after cooking, it ought to oxidise less and the top will feel more like everything else. All I know is that I preferred 九层糕 with the slightly bitier top layer as opposed to the rest. Again, this feeds into my eating process that goes from bottom to top. I save the best for last. I also appreciate the variance and that last bit of additional texture just cuts past all the same sameness that went before it.
I wonder how many Singaporeans and Malaysians and cultures with similar kueh went through the same thought processes as I did as a child. I also wonder what other methods and ideas people came up with to eat 九层糕. I think it’s a pity to bite through the layers, you lose that fun of peeling and that stickyness and mess. You do gain one aspect. I do admit that occasionally, I certainly went at 2 or 3 layers at once. This wasn’t because I just wanted to power through to the top or I was being greedy. Moreso, I wanted to feel the layers separating in mouth. it’s engaging to smoothly separate two layers with your teeth and tongue and not your fingers. It’s primal, organic. Nearly sexy, except I was naive, innocent. This allowed for variance, which is important because that contrast and juxtaposition is what gets you through palette fatigue. Yet now, I’m also plagued with the idea of how it all works and all the magic and mystery is a little dampened. I supposed you might read this and go one of the following:
a)OH! I never thought about it like that
b)WTF, it’s just food
c)I WAS TEH SAMES
d)WHY YOU SPOIL FUNTIMES?
What I’ve found, of course, is that I had the same ideas about food when I was a child as I do now. I enjoy change. I like menus that take you on a journey. I manage to accomplish this alone as a 5 year old in a 3 minute kueh session. I expect at the minimum, something akin to this for a $100 tasting menu and put the same due diligence into my own food and cooking.
Enjoy your kueh.