Cakes with char­ac­ter

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Sa­vory cakes can be made from rice dough with tempt­ing fill­ings full of chives, peanuts, yams, bam­boo shoots, turnips, bean curd. They are shaped by hand or by elab­o­rate hand-carved wooden molds, then steamed in huge vats.

The pretty cakes are made for cel­e­bra­tions, tem­ple of­fer­ings or any hol­i­day oc­ca­sion, and peo­ple can gather to feast and re­lax.

They are a Chaozhou spe­cialty from the Chaoshan re­gion, where the peo­ple are tech­ni­cally Can­tonese be­cause of the pro­vin­cial bound­aries but they speak a di­alect that the rest of the prov­ince finds hard to un­der­stand.

But ev­ery­one un­der­stands the lan­guage of food, and the del­i­cate cakes and pas­tries so lov­ingly hand­crafted by moth­ers and sis­ters have trav­eled far in their pop­u­lar­ity.

These del­i­cate cakes do not use fancy in­gre­di­ents and it is a wor­thy tes­ti­mo­nial to the Chaozhou home chefs that they man­age to cre­ate such a di­ver­sity of pas­tries that are, in fact, mostly vege­tar­ian.

The most fa­mous guo or cake is a chewy pink con­fec­tion stuffed with fluffy gluti­nous rice and peanuts. It’s shaped as a sin­gle pe­tal, but the rice dough is placed into a wooden mold with in­tri­cate peach mo­tifs, and so it’s named red peach cake, or hong­taoguo.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery fam­ily pre­pares these as an an­ces­tral of­fer­ing on all the ma­jor fes­ti­vals such as Spring Fes­ti­val, win­ter sol­stice or Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val. They also cook it for birthdays and wed­dings.

The cakes are steamed long and slow, so they can keep bet­ter, but they are of­ten re­heated by shal­low fry­ing so the cakes de­velop a crispy golden crust.

The wooden molds are also used to make a white-skinned ver­sion, baitaoguo, that uti­lizes shred­ded taro for a sweet fill­ing or a sa­vory mung bean paste.

Sun­guo are lit­tle half-moons filled with shred­ded bam­boo shoots, dried shrimp and hard bean curd. The outer wrap­per is rice dough mixed with ei­ther sweet potato or corn starch to give it a stretchy, chewy tex­ture.

These cakes are hand-molded and then steamed. The hot cakes are eaten with a sweet sticky black soy sauce and a tart chili sauce.

Be­cause bam­boo shoots can be ex­pen­sive out of sea­son, these “bam­boo shoot pas­tries” are some­times made from the cheaper yam bean or ji­cama in­stead.

These, like many Chaozhou pas­tries, were made as of­fer­ings to the gods ini­tially but be­came so pop­u­lar that they were soon sold as ev­ery­day food.

The next snack is full of folk his­tory. This is the shuquguo named for a wild herb gath­ered from the moun­tain. Just af­ter the win­ter sol­stice, peo­ple would trek up in search of this very in­ter­est­ing herb. It’s low-grow­ing with tiny yel­low flower heads and is val­ued in tra­di­tional medicine as a cough cure and for its abil­ity to lower hy­per­ten­sion. But for peo­ple in Chaoshan, it’s both a fla­vor­ing and col­or­ing agent for cakes.

Af­ter gath­er­ing the herb, it is dried in the sun and then pul­ver­ized to a pow­der. This is then added to the rice dough and kneaded in. The re­sult­ing gray dough is then shaped around a sweet taro fill­ing.

When cooked, these rice cakes ac­quire an at­trac­tive speck­led ap­pear­ance. It’s get­ting harder and harder to find Gnaphal­ium affine in the wild. Con­se­quently, a Chaozhou friend of mine has told me, many fam­i­lies now use black se­same in­stead.

These cakes are eaten on the last day of the year, on lu­nar New Year’s Eve.

An­other fes­tive cake is made from chives. Con­sid­ered an ev­ery­day snack, this is a sim­ple dough wrapped around chopped chives that had been sea­soned and stir-fried. But what makes this at­trac­tive is the translu­cent sheen of dark green that shows through the thin dough skin.

Not all Chaoshan pas­tries are made from rice dough. There are some that are made from sweet potato flour or potato flour. There are also cakes made from a nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion of wheat flour and steamed over high heat like sponges.

Dur­ing fes­tive oc­ca­sions es­pe­cially, fa­gao must be made be­cause the name is ho­mo­phonic with “ris­ing pros­per­ity”. They are ba­si­cally sim­ple flour and sugar bat­ters, set aside to let nat­u­ral fer­men­ta­tion take place. The im­pa­tient may help the process with a lit­tle yeast.

An­other type of cake that is com­mon in Chaoshan house­holds con­sists of sa­vory slabs made with plenty of taro or pump­kin.

Yutougao is made of yam, of­ten cubed and steamed be­fore be­ing added to a cooked rice bat­ter fla­vored with chopped, dried shrimp and fried onions. The thick bat­ter is then lev­eled out in a pan and steamed for a cou­ple of hours.

The slabs are then cut up and re­fried for a sat­is­fy­ing meal. Pump­kin is used in a sim­i­lar way.

But the most fa­mous steamed cake is the radish cake, caitouguo. Lots of grated radish is mixed into a thick rice bat­ter and cooked un­til the radish lit­er­ally melts. Only its nat­u­ral sweet­ness re­mains.

The steamed cake is cut into smaller pieces and pan-fried with egg and more radishes — the pick­led sweet sa­vory chopped radish — and sea­soned with thick sweet soy sauce.

Fried radish cake is pop­u­lar as a street food not just in Chaoshan but all over South­east Asia.

An­other street food that started out in Chaoshan is the “wa­ter cake” or shuiguo, which is a la­dle of smooth rice bat­ter steamed in a tiny earth­en­ware saucer. When cooked, the rice cake de­vel­ops a dim­ple in its cen­ter, where the hot steam con­denses and turns into a tiny pud­dle of wa­ter.

The wa­ter is tossed out, and a rich bub­bling brew of pick­led radish, sweet fried onions and se­same seeds goes into the dim­ple. It is a pop­u­lar break­fast food.

Placed to­gether, this won­der­ful se­lec­tion of cakes and pas­tries is a col­or­ful sam­ple of the in­ge­nu­ity of the Chaoshan cook. The main in­gre­di­ents are just a hand­ful of the most or­di­nary found in the av­er­age kitchen.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

These cakes, or guo, are a Chaozhou spe­cialty, made from rice dough with tempt­ing fill­ings.

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