I don’t know how ma lai goh got its name – there’s nothing Malay about the steamed cake. However, it is possible it was originally made with gula melaka (palm sugar), although most recipes call for “brown sugar” without specifying the type (having said that, though, the caramelised, deep flavour of gula melaka would be delicious in the cake). A good ma lai goh is warm, light and fragrant; bad ones taste and smell of too much baking soda.
It’s a simple, quick cake, made by whisking eggs with brown sugar, baking soda, baking powder, flour and either milk or coconut milk. The batter is poured into a paper-lined bamboo basket, then steamed, which ensures that it’s moist.
At dim sum restaurants, ma lai goh is steamed in huge bamboo baskets, then cut into large, square-ish chunks before being served. It’s sometimes offered as dessert at old-fashioned Cantonese restaurants (the version served at the Kimberley Chinese Restaurant, at The Kimberley Hotel, in Tsim Sha Tsui, is good), where it’s cooked in smaller baskets and served whole.