Wal­nut Cakes: Child­hood Me­mories

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by David Ball

Hav­ing orig­i­nally ap­peared in the south of China, wal­nut cakes were later in­tro­duced to the north. They then be­came a favourite snack amongst peo­ple of all ages across the country.

For Bei­jingers, there are too many time-hon­oured cake shops to be counted. Back when Bei­jing was still called Peip­ing, cake shops were known as pas­try shops and the dif­fer­ent kinds of cakes were sim­ply called pas­tries, among which “crisp pas­tries” were the bestsellers. As one such crisp pas­try, wal­nut cakes were not only pop­u­lar in the im­pe­rial palace but also loved by or­di­nary peo­ple. Hav­ing orig­i­nally ap­peared in the south of China, they were later in­tro­duced to the north, af­ter which they be­came a favourite snack amongst peo­ple of all ages across the country.

Chi­nese food is renowned for its vivid ap­pear­ances and mean­ing­ful names which are of­ten cho­sen for their el­e­gance or aus­pi­cious­ness. When it comes to wal­nut cakes, how­ever, the taste is in­de­scrib­able. Chi­nese cul­ture is known for its broad­ness and pro­fun­dity, and how the names of food of­ten give clues as to cer­tain fea­tures of it. For ex­am­ple, one can im­me­di­ately feel the soft­ness, crisp­ness, melt-in-your-mouth tex­ture and fresh­ness typ­i­cal of crisp pas­tries by sim­ply look­ing at the Chi­nese char­ac­ter “酥”( su).

Wal­nut cake first ap­peared in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Prov­ince. Leg­end has it that when pot­tery and porce­lain flour­ished dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644), farm­ers from near and far worked as pot­ters in the work­shops in Leping, Guixi

and Ying­tan sur­round­ing Jingdezhen. At that time, one farmer from Leping made some dough with flour he had brought from home and baked it in the pot­tery kiln. Wor­ried that it would fall apart or get too dry and hard, the farmer added a few drops of oil to the dough. As a re­sult, the cakes he made were crisp, fill­ing and kept for long pe­ri­ods. The farmer also had a bad cough and so usu­ally ate wal­nuts to help al­le­vi­ate the prob­lem, so de­cided to crush and mix them with the flour. Back then this was noth­ing but a clever idea to save trou­ble, but it must have amazed oth­ers when the cakes were taken out of the kiln. Many of the other pot­ters en­joyed the wal­nut cakes so much that they also started to make them, with the cakes they made be­com­ing known as “pot­ters' cakes.” Later, the pot­ters gave their self-made pas­try a beau­ti­ful name, “taosu,” or wal­nut cake, which sounded more re­fined and el­e­gant.

In many food shops across Bei­jing, wal­nut cakes are a com­mon pas­try. How­ever, some shops ad­ver­tise the snacks as “im­pe­rial wal­nut cakes” to make them sound more at­trac­tive, just as restau­rants of­fer­ing dishes from Hangzhou of­ten em­pha­sise the story of the Song Dy­nasty Em­peror Gao­zong (reign: 1127–1163) to en­hance the value of the dish ‘‘Madam Song's Fish Broth.'' How­ever, it turns out that the story of wal­nut cakes be­ing a snack served in the im­pe­rial court is not just a mar­ket­ing gim­mick.

Wal­nut cakes first be­came known as an “im­pe­rial snack” dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Ji­a­jing (1522–1567) in the Ming Dy­nasty. At that time there were two fa­mous prime min­is­ters, Xia Yan (1482–1548) and Yan Song (1480–1569), who both hailed from Jiangxi. Two years older than Xia Yan, Yan Song passed the high­est im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion in the 18th year of the Hongzhi Pe­riod (1488– 1506), 12 years ear­lier than Xia. How­ever, Yan had to re­sign from the Im­pe­rial Academy be­cause of poor health and re­turn to his home­town where he lived in reclu­sion in the Qian Moun­tains. In the 15th year of the Ji­a­jing Pe­riod, shortly af­ter the gifted scholar Xia was pro­moted to Grand Sec­re­tary, he was hon­est and kind enough to rec­om­mend Yan Song to be Min­is­ter of Rites. Xia wanted to rec­om­mend a wise man for his country, but he had not ex­pected that the two of them would dis­agree so much po­lit­i­cally af­ter Yan took up the po­si­tion. Grad­u­ally, Xia be­came known as a loyal court of­fi­cial be­cause of his hon­esty and frank­ness but Yan be­came a typ­i­cal traitorous min­is­ter. The two men be­came hos­tile to each other, un­til Yan even framed Xia on a trumpedup charge of “col­lud­ing with rebels guard­ing the fron­tier.” Con­se­quently, Xia was be­headed and nine gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily were im­pli­cated. Af­ter his death, his de­scen­dants fled to Ying­tan in Jiangxi and opened a shop sell­ing wal­nut cakes at the dock some­where near the Arc­tic Pav­il­ion.

Dy­nas­tic changes how­ever have never weak­ened the dom­i­nant po­si­tion of food within the lives of or­di­nary Chi­nese peo­ple. Over time, the Xia fam­ily's wal­nut cakes be­came known by Em­peror Qian­long (reign: 1736–1795). Dur­ing a visit to the area, Em­peror Qian­long and his fol­low­ers stayed at a Taoist shrine at the foot of Mount Longhu. The lo­cal Taoist lead­ers re­ceived the em­peror re­spect­fully and waited upon him with the ut­most care. They ac­com­pa­nied him on trav­els through the moun­tains, serv­ing him var­i­ous del­i­ca­cies from both the land and moun­tains as well as tasty cakes. Over a few days, the em­peror es­pe­cially took to the wal­nut cakes and spoke highly of them. Af­ter he learned more about them, he de­clared them as a spe­cial im­pe­rial cake and or­dered that they be pre­sented to the court reg­u­larly. Thus, wal­nut cakes be­came widely known across the country as an im­pe­rial court snack.

Many lovers of cos­tume dra­mas still re­mem­ber the tele­vi­sion drama Langyang­bang ( Nir­vana in Fire), which also at­tracted food­ies. The wal­nut cakes and hazel­nut cakes that ap­peared in the se­ries be­came just as pop­u­lar amongst the au­di­ences as the show it­self. In ac­tual fact, pre­par­ing these cakes is rel­a­tively sim­ple. First, the flour is kneaded into a dough, af­ter which but­ter, eggs, hazel­nuts, pis­ta­chios, se­same seeds and other nuts are added. The dough is then shaped into the de­sired size be­fore be­ing baked in an oven.

Now that peo­ple live in a world of plenty, many kinds of food may look com­mon enough, but they are still ca­pa­ble of re­mind­ing peo­ple of a spe­cial time or place. Just as peo­ple eat for the sake of a spe­cial feel­ing, wal­nut cakes are a unique mem­ory for Bei­jingers.

Anyone born in Bei­jing dur­ing the 1950s and 60s will surely re­mem­ber the pas­try boxes lined up in shops, of which the wal­nut cakes al­ways looked the most at­trac­tive. The sight of a child from a rich fam­ily slowly en­joy­ing this cake wrapped in a piece of coarse paper was tempt­ing enough to his peers who couldn't af­ford one. For many years af­ter the found­ing of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China and be­fore re­form and open­ing up, wal­nut cakes were a favourite gift for Bei­jingers to ex­change be­tween rel­a­tives and friends on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. A pack of wal­nut cakes weighs about one kilo­gram; each round cake is about six to seven cen­time­tres (cm) in di­am­e­ter and two cm thick. Stacked upon one another into two piles, the cakes were neatly placed by a shop as­sis­tant on a piece of rough straw paper, which was then care­fully folded into a square, the four cor­ners form­ing the shape of a di­a­mond, and the bot­tom wider than the top. When ex­changed as a present, the cakes were usu­ally pack­aged in three lay­ers. The in­ner­most layer con­tained a dried lo­tus leaf, which was dry but still pli­able enough to pre­vent the oil wet­ting the outer wrap­pers; the sec­ond layer was a thick yel­low­ish­brown straw paper which cov­ered the lo­tus leaf and pro­duced a bet­ter shape; and the third layer was yel­low or white paper printed with the shop's red trademark. Fi­nally, the packet was tied in a cross with string, in­clud­ing a slip­knot on the top for car­ry­ing. The soft and sweet wal­nut cakes were a tempt­ing sight, but peo­ple of­ten did not tuck in as soon as they re­ceived them as a gift. Back then, peo­ple still lived hard lives and so would not open the packet to eat them un­til the wrap­pers were soaked with oil and the cakes had bro­ken into pieces af­ter be­ing ex­changed be­tween rel­a­tives many times. The first bite of the cake was un­for­get­table and the tempt­ing taste re­mains in the me­mories of many gen­er­a­tions of Bei­jingers.

Bei­jing is world fa­mous for its food. In terms of just pas­tries alone, prob­a­bly no one knows how many va­ri­eties are on of­fer in Bei­jing, among which wal­nut cakes are con­sid­ered too com­mon to be a favourite. How­ever, for those who cher­ish the past, wal­nut cakes are unique, trig­ger­ing feel­ings of nos­tal­gia and re­mind­ing peo­ple of happy child­hood me­mories.

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