Let Them Eat Cakes

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

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.

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