Walnut Cakes: Childhood Memories
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.