The Woman Behind Indonesia's Hypnotic Terrarium Cakes

August 22, 2017
Iven Kawi. Photo by Ivenoven

Iven Kawi’s back has been hurting lately. It’s been like this for a few months now, ever since her work has gotten more demanding. She and her husband have co-managed Ivenoven out of their modest kitchen in Lippo Karawaci in Tangerang, a city in Indonesia, since January of 2014. It’s a business staffed by a small army of bakers from all over the world, from Seattle to Sydney to Taipei. But, not too long ago, she realized she needed more help.

The demand for her cakes had outpaced her bandwidth, so her close friends pushed Kawi to hire an assistant. She and her husband took to Instagram to announce that they had a vacancy on their team they needed to fill immediately. Within minutes, Kawi tells me, she’d been barraged with messages from all over the world.

Photo by ivenoven

This wasn’t terribly surprising. Though Kawi only ships her cakes within Indonesia, she’s attracted hundreds of thousands of devotees far outside the country. Most fawn over her terrarium cakes. They’re marvelously baroque creations made from pipes of buttercream, fashioned carefully to resemble plants on beds of soil. Kawi posts photos every day to the 346,000 people who follow her on Instagram, attaching cheery aphorisms like "Happiness is a journey, not a destination" and "Your love is higher than the [sic] heaven" to each photograph.

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Though Kawi has maintained an Instagram presence since she began Ivenoven, international audiences truly caught wind of her work this past April, when it appeared on Bored Panda, a sort of litmus test for measuring virality. Soon after, I wrote about her cakes quite briefly on our site, invoking the obsession of our readership, hungry for her secrets and covetous of her skills.

There are many photographs of Kawi’s cakes online; there are very few of her. Her route to Ivenoven was circuitous: She first baked elegant sugar-coated cookies for her daughter one Christmas four years ago. They caught the attention of her schoolmates' parents who ogled her rigorous and disciplined handiwork, so much that they asked to order her cookies from her. Kawi’s husband encouraged her to monetize this energy and harness it into a business orbiting around desserts. The next month, they began Ivenoven.

When she started Ivenoven in January 2014, Kawi baked one cake a week. That turned into two cakes a week, which became two cakes per day. Then four. Eventually, 18. Now, every day, she and her team bake 30 cakes in Jakarta and 10 cakes in Surabaya, where she recently opened a second location of Ivenoven.

Kawi at work. Photo by ivenoven

“I used to watch my mom baking and how she worked, the material and the ingredients she used,” Kawi tells me. Kawi was born and raised in Palembang, a small city in South Sumatra. Her mother baked classic Indonesian layer cakes for Kawi as a child, using free-range eggs without any chemical substances like cake softeners or stabilizers.

But Kawi moved far from home once she got married and had children. She began to miss the taste of her mother’s cakes and what they made her feel. “That's the moment I started baking. It was to satisfy my and my children's craving for classic cakes,” she remembers. “I began baking for my own family. And then my friends tasted my cakes and encouraged me to sell them."

Signage for Zoezo Bake, a division of Ivenoven. Photo by ivenoven

Kawi hews to a static daily routine. She wakes up at 5 a.m. each morning and bakes until 7 a.m., stopping briefly to take her children to school. Kawi then treks back home to decorate and bake some more cakes. Before she passes her cakes on to her delivery man, her husband takes a photograph of the cakes to determine whether they’re worth shipping out.

“Having a third party check and give some feedback makes us pay attention to detail more than anything else,” she explains of this step in the process. It's a crucial one. If she doesn’t like the look of a cake in the photograph, she futzes with the frosting until it's just right. Kawi and her team pause briefly at 12:30 p.m. for lunch and then resume, closing out the day at 5 p.m. When I ask if she can imagine a life in which she does anything but bake, well, she just doesn’t see it. There's no alternative; it's baking or bust.

Your love is higher than the heaven 😇

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My eyegasm 👀

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Share kindness, share love 💕

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Sooner or later, your work speaks for itself. 💕 SG

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There are lots of things to be done, how I wish we have more time. I'm so grateful for many open doors and opportunities. 화이팅

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Can't wait to go back to Surabaya again this week. See you 💕

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Thank you for loving it as much as we do. Muchas gracias 😘

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Full vines buttercream terrarium cake. Thank you so much for your nice comments and messages. I'm so blessed! 💕💕

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Follow @ivenoven on Instagram here.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Celeste August 28, 2017
Stunningly magical and beautiful.
Ann S. August 27, 2017
Glorious! I wouldn't want to cut into it :(