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