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Bringing layers of Borneo to the Brits

By Vicky Fong New Sarawak Tribune April 4, 2020

Sarawak Kek Lapis

A new business is brewing in the United Kingdom that revolves about the traditional layer cake known as Kek Lapis, which originated as part of the afternoon tea for colonial administrators in Indonesia before being introduced locally in the 70s and 80s. In Sarawak, the incorporation of new ingredients, flavours and colours eventually resulted in the modern Sarawak Kek Lapis that remains popular among Malaysians and tourists alike.

A uniqueness all by itself

LONDON – The man behind the promotion of the cake in the United Kingdom is Dr Laurence John, whom I first met some years ago in Kuala Lumpur. It is no coincidence that he played a pivotal role in the hosting of the International Borneo Festival over the past eight years, which has even made its way to London. On two of such occasions, I attended a Borneo cultural beauty pageant and a food fest in Kuala Lumpur which certainly made those such as myself feel less homesick.

Being mighty proud of Bornean heritage, the main objective is to promote the cultures, crafts and cuisine of Sabah and Sarawak to international markets, according to Dr Laurence who is married to an East Malaysian.

Since relocating to England in 2018, he is a social entrepreneurs’ director focused on developing entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom under ‘Greater UK Asia’ — a platform for Asian opportunities in education and business — with the support of the British government.

Dr Laurence has vast experience in developing entrepreneurs and believes in sustainable business that only demands a small investment to kickstart. This includes a kiosk concept for young entrepreneurs, which is set to be commenced in the UK before being introduced in selected Asian countries. It is reputedly the only program of its kind so far, seeking to complete the process of education leading to a business degree followed by actual engagement in business thereafter.

According to him, they have come up with an approach for promoting Kek Lapis in the UK by capitalising on innovative and creative ideas. Certainly, the cake already boasts a uniqueness all by itself, but the question is how to make it appealing to a foreign market.

  • Sarawak Kek Lapis

An important aspect of selling a product is telling the story behind it. A compelling story is more likely to stick in the minds of potential buyers and the message in this instance will be that the multiple layers and colours of the Kek Lapis are representative of the diverse ethnicities and cultures of Borneo.

Taking charge of the production in the UK is Munica Liwan, a Kelabit from Long Seridan, Miri.

Munica Liwan, a Kelabit from Long Seridan, Miri.

She has herself observed a high demand for the cake in the course of giving out free samplings at a Borneo Festival held in London, church programs and other events. In particular, there seems to be an admiration for the fine artwork reflected in the designs of the iconic layers which requires plenty of patience in baking.

Considering the stark contrast in environment and resources between the two countries, I could not help but query Dr Laurence as to whether the production of Kek Lapis in the UK would be rather different from here.

His explanation is that the approach of baking is completely different due to the four seasons and different temperatures experienced. It is also imperative to have a good understanding of all the ingredients to be used there. For instance, the flour in the UK results in a different texture and the many choices of butter and variations, both salted and non-salted, gives rise to distinct tastes.

A thumbs-up for the Kek Lapis by Munica Liwan.

Of flavours and colours there are also natural flavours, natural colours, and even organic flour. The colours and flavours they are using have in fact gained approval under UK regulations and standards. At present there are 10 flavours including strawberry, lemon, orange, ginger, chocolate, oat, cheese, Oreo and peppermint.

The paper boxes for the packaging of the Kek Lapis will be produced back home and are merely awaiting the resumption of flights from Malaysia to London. Likewise, the launch of the product which was scheduled for April has been postponed due to the ongoing measures against the spread of Covid-19.

Nevertheless, the new enterprise is simply raring to go and hopes are high that the British will not just fall in love with the signature Sarawak Kek Lapis, but be driven to actually visit East Malaysia in the fairer days to come.

For more information, you check out J’s Layer Cake UK on Facebook.


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