Let Them Eat Cakes
In Beijing, yingmian bobo (sweet hard flour cakes) are common amongst the various pastries. They enjoy a long and glorious history and descend from guokui (baked wheat cakes), which are a staple from Northwest China.
In Beijing's many small restaurants, “yingmian bobo” (sweet hard flour cakes) are too common to stand out amongst the various colourful pastries. However, sweet hard flour cakes enjoy a long and glorious history, and are “descended” from “guokui” (baked wheat cakes) which are a staple in restaurants serving food from the northwest of China. The history of sweet hard flour cakes can be appreciated from the development of baked wheat cakes.
People in the north of China tend to prefer food made from wheat and have been using flour to create numerous types of food for thousands of years—of which baked wheat cakes are one. Preparing baked wheat cakes is rather simple: Fine flour is used to create the initial shape and they are then baked in a pan over a gentle heat until the outside turns golden. Good baked wheat cakes should be “dry, crisp, white and aromatic.” They should be soft and spongy on the inside, hard and chewy on the outside, and the whole cake should be whitecoloured and well-flavoured. Whilst the steps required may sound simple enough, meeting these standards is another thing.
Before they were introduced to Beijing along with north-western cuisine, baked wheat cakes were a staple food in Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces; proving particularly popular in Shaanxi and Gansu. The dry climate in these provinces and with wheat as the main crop, dishes made from wheat were naturally enjoyed by many after the harvest. For that reason, wheaten food is offered up by locals on almost all special and festive occasions there. On the central Shaanxi Plain, baked wheat cakes are still presented as a gift by a maternal grandmother when a grandson turns one month old; in Shanxi, a bride's family will give a huamo (colourfullydecorated bun) prepared in a similar method to baked wheat cakes as a wedding gift; in Xinjiang, the widely popular nang (flat bread) is actually a variety of baked wheat cake; and in Beijing, there is a similar pastry called yingmian bobo which is perfectly crisp. These different varieties reflect how the baked wheat cake family has developed and been
introduced to different areas across China over the years.
Versions differ as to where baked wheat cakes first originated, however each is fascinating in its own right.
Shaanxi people are known as the descendants of the Qin people. The most widely circulated story as to the origin of baked wheat cakes can be traced back to the Warring States Period (475–221 BC) when they are believed to have been created by people from the State of Qin— the most powerful of the seven warring states. According to legend, when King Wen of Zhou (reign: 1099–1050 BC) sent troops to attack King Zhou of Shang (reign: 1075–1046 BC), a large round cake similar to what is today known as baked wheat cake was used to feed the army. Even now in Xifu (present-day Baoji and its surrounding areas), Shaanxi, there is a type of baked wheat cake called “King Wen's Cake,” but Shaanxi locals generally believe that this was only a prototype of baked wheat cake. It was the Qin people who really helped develop and popularise the baked wheat cake as we know it today. The cake they made was large, solid and thick, which, due to its similarity to the flat surface of a tree stump, was once called “stump cake.” These cakes, each weighing around three kilogrammes, were 60 centimetres in diameter and 15 centimetres thick, and were given to the Qin soldiers as rations. The cakes were so large that they had to be carried in a special way: two cakes were tied together using string tied through holes and carried around the neck of a soldier, with one cake hanging in front of his chest and the other on his back. The cakes also helped protect the soldiers in battles as armour and any arrows fired by the enemy that stuck into the cakes were reused by the Qin soldiers. These stump cakes played an important role in “borrowing arrows,” protecting soldiers and finally helped lead the Qin army to victory. For this reason, the soldiers formally named the cakes “guokui,” meaning “pan-baked armour,” and the cakes became widely known. People in Shaanxi believe that besides the political and military factors recorded in the history books, this “pan-baked armour” played a significant role in the Qin army's conquering of all the other six states and unifying the whole of China.
The reason that baked wheat cakes can be kept for such a long time is because of the ingredients used and the method of preparation. Even in hot summers, a wellbaked wheat cake can last as long as half a month without going bad. This makes it extremely suitable for use as rations during times of war and just as good as those used by armies nowadays. Baked wheat cakes helped the Qin army achieve victory and also proved to be of great practical and spiritual value as a solid food for ordinary people to consume on long journeys. It is still quite common nowadays for people in Shaanxi to prepare baked wheat cakes for family members who are going on a journey.
Being made from fine wheat flour and baked on both sides, Beijing's “sweet hard flour cakes” surely qualify as a member of the baked wheat cake family. In addition, it was commonplace for foods and snacks to be introduced into Beijing by people from all across the country after the city was first made the capital as early as the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234). Between themselves however, old Beijingers call sweet hard flour cakes, “stump pastries,” perhaps because of the similar name used by the Qin people. The only difference may be that the local name of “stump pastry” ( dunr bobo) sounds more native to Beijingers, whereas “baked wheat cakes” ( guokui) sounds more typical of the tough north-westerners.
Sweet hard Osmanthus cakes used to be extremely popular in Beijing. This snack is prepared in exactly the same way as baked wheat cakes except with white sugar and Osmanthus blossom added. Food-loving Beijingers also made the large, thick wheat cakes rounder and smaller, which meant they were no longer only a food saved for journeys, but also a refined snack loved by both the imperial family and ordinary people. At the same time, the cake's elegant appearance meant that people found it difficult to believe that it actually belonged to the same family as the rather plain-looking baked wheat cake.
From the late Qing Dynasty (1644– 1911) until the Republic of China period (1912–1949), sweet hard flour cakes were generally only served as a night-time snack. During the Republican period, the Zhonghua Book Company published a book called Beiping fengsu leizheng (“Peiping customs”) which included a short poem entitled Yandu xiaoshipin zayong (“Yanjing snacks”). This work described how the sweet hard flour cakes were sold at night: “Peddlers cries ring out as they sell their cakes in the streets; their cries are so loud and clear that they enter the people's houses; they carry far on a quiet night, waking people from their dreams.” This scene may still be familiar to some old Beijingers. Those who bought the cakes from the street peddlers usually had to stay up late into the night, busy with studying, needlework or other jobs that needed to be finished. Xia Renhu (1874–1963), a scholar in the late Qing Dynasty, also described a similar scene in his poem Jiujing qiuci (“autumn in old Beijing”). The poem relates how sweet hard flour cakes were popular because of their good taste; peddlers would call out as they sold their cakes, walking from street to street at night; and at that time, most Beijingers lived along the street and so could buy them through their windows without having to go outside. The poem also specifically mentions that those who bought the cakes were mostly housewives, still busy doing their needlework by lamplight.
Displaying ethnic characteristics through regional foods has long been an effective method of cultural communication. If Chinese food is considered as a cultural messenger, then the sweet hard flour cake has definitely made a contribution. A cigarette card entitled "Sweet Hard Flour Cake Peddler" produced by the Japanese Murai Brothers Company in 1904 offers a vivid picture of a street peddler selling his wares during the late Qing Dynasty: the peddler has a winnowing basket on his head, which contains sweet hard flour cakes, sesame seed cakes, fried dough twists and steamed sponge cakes; two children led by an adult are buying some sweet hard flour cakes from him.
Both baked wheat cakes and sweet hard flour cakes are more than a snack. They are reminders of people and times gone by: the cold moon over the vast desert, soldiers at war, cool nights in old Beijing and increasing prosperity. The legendary stories passed down from generation to generation are all contained inside these humblelooking cakes.