In an age-old debate, the consensus appears to be that cakes have no precise culinary definition, just breads conditioned by extra air bubbles and one’s own cultural expectations for how desserts ought to taste. In the case of the nine-inch layer cakes now ubiquitous in bakery shop windows across Chinese cities, this can be a perfect recipe for crossed cultural wires and disappointment.
Consider the appearance of the typical bakery cake—an airy foundation of an oven-baked, eggy concoction coated with a layer of what those in the English-speaking world might naturally consider to be “frosting” or “icing”. Yet the words “frosting” and “icing” definitely recall a texture of crystallized sugar and crunchy glaze that the Chinese bakery cake share neither in composition nor taste. Instead, the Chinese bakery cake is glazed by the even more obviously named naiyou (奶油, “milk oil”): a fluffy mass of cream, vegetable oil-based whipped topping, but only lightly tinged by a sweet taste. They often come topped with fresh fruits but the creamy glaze can dry up or break down after an hour or so left in the open air. Underneath, the base is typically a sponge cake held up by beaten egg whites and filled with more cream and fruit.
Next to similarly tiered-and-glazed Western staples like the German chocolate cake or Boston cream pie or the basic buttercream sheet cake, it’s no wonder the strangeness of Chinese cake and dessert is a perennial topic on expat blogs. Meanwhile, online baking and decorating communities see routine calls from overseas Chinese and the cake decorators they hire for recipes clarifying that it is the elusive cake of their childhoods that they want, not that American stuff.
On the flip side, hordes of Chinese diners who encounter actual sugar-based frosting or icing, classic pound cake, custard, and chocolate-cream fillings, have had a one-word response to these Western culinary staples: ni (腻), which is not a bad British movie reference but a difficult-to-translate word that means feeling sick from over-exposure to one taste. In the case of “Western desserts”, or xidian, they usually mean that the dessert is too sweet, or 甜腻, though sometimes they are also considered too oily or rich, or 油腻. Whether your preferred poison is marzipan or meringue, fondant or the typical American buttercream, naiyou remains several magnitudes lighter and blander than all of these; the tartness of fruit also breaks up the monotony of grease and sugar.
A Chinese fan of TLC’s Cake Boss, who took it upon herself to personally go sample Buddy Valastro’s creations, made up this memorable summary of the experience in a web forum: “Ate some, wasn’t good, everything was overly sweet, but foreigners like it pretty well.”
Stereotyped as a nation of rice-eaters, it can be easy to forget that wheat-based foods and desserts have their own indigenous roots in China. In ancient times, the Silk Roads and maritime trading routes across Asia did brisk trade in desserts such as baklava and ingredients like nuts, dried fruits, almond paste, and eventually sugar cane and vanilla. However, globally, the concept of “cake” as a flour-based concoction made with refined sugar and raised by beaten eggs, rather than unleavened or raised by yeast, was associated with Europe toward the mid-17th century, doubtlessly helped by the large-scale cultivation of sugar cane in the New World colonies. This history is reflected in the names of the culinary certificates at places like the Beijing New East Cuisine School; mastering wheat-flour creations like 饼 (bǐng) makes you an expert at “Chinese-style flour-based snacks (中式面点),” but knowledge about making and decorating cake falls under the curriculum of “Western-style flour-based snacks” (西式面点) or simply “Western snacks” (西点).
The earliest and clearest genealogy of a European-influenced style of sponge cake becoming an East Asian dessert tradition belongs to the Japanese castella. Brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the sixteenth century, this is a honey-flavored cake raised by egg whites without the aid of butter or other oil.
It is less clear when the European-influenced cake made landfall in China. According to the court writings of the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Emperor and Cixi Emperess were both reportedly fond of a snack called 槽子糕 (cáozigāo), a small round cake specially baked for breakfasts in the imperial court out of fresh eggs, white sugar and flour. So called because 蛋 was inauspiciously associated with curses and insults in the imperial capital, the character 槽 (mould) referred to the instrument for baking the cake, and it is now considered a local delicacy in Beijing and Tianjin.
References to Western-style restaurants in Chinese cities and European-inspired desserts being consumed by the elite classes in the imperial capital can also be found in the Qing Dynasty writings such as Qing Records of Petty Matters and Record of the Awakened Garden, the latter of which contains a section of recipes on preparing the most fashionable desserts and confections of the mid-18th century. The Qing Records of Petty Matters tells us that by at least the 19th century Western desserts had become commonplace enough in China to be grouped into five categories: meringues, “wet” desserts (such as ice cream), bread, crispy pastries such as cookies, and cake. The cake is said to be a type of “cream cake” that tastes “soft and spongy”.
In terms of taste, texture, and the method of preparation, cakes in China appeared to have already developed a style of their own by the 18th century. In the Record of the Awakened Garden, compiled in 1782, the primary mode of cooking both egg-based dangao and “Western cake” was by steaming. This would have provided a softer, airier and moist texture to an otherwise familiar set of steps to a modern-day baker, calling for a ratio of a pound of flour, 10 eggs, and half-pound of white sugar evenly mixed and set to rise, then steamed until “chopsticks can be inserted without sticking” and served once it is “cooled and cut in slices”. Those making the “egg-based cake” also have the option of making a “dry cake” by warming up the mixture on a stove before baking in a small metal furnace. The “Western cake” in the 18th-century China called for 16 eggs for every pound of flour and half pound of white sugar, as well as half a bowl of sweet rice wine (酒酿 jiǔniàng) and water. After “mixing by using chopsticks” and “blowing away the foam”, the batter must be left somewhere warm to rise, and then wrapped securely in cloth before being placed in a bamboo steamer.
The commercial bakery offering Western-inspired birthday cakes, danishes, shortbreads, and other pastries had their start in the 1980s and 90s on the Chinese mainland, helped by market reform as well as the techniques and adaptations for taste developed by bakeries in Hong Kong. Well-known Chinese bakery chains such as Holiland and Christine were both founded in 1992, later joined by chains such as Weidome, Auspicious Phoenix, Ichido, and Kengee. It was also around this time that it became tradition in China to serve cake at birthday celebrations, which were and still are partly associated with foods such as noodles symbolizing longevity and boiled egg, symbolizing “rollover onto the next year”.
“The Anatomy of Cake” is the cover story from our newest issue, “Agriculture”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.