Chinese birthday cakes
I have been feeling pretty uninspired lately. I started several posts but left them sitting on the draft folder because they felt boring and irrelevant. But inspiration can be found any moment and I have to thank Leona from My L(e)onely Planet for the idea to write this post! A conversation about weight made me think about Chinese cakes and how difficult it is to find good western-style cakes in China.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: Chinese sweets are very different from western ones. Where we have chocolate or custard, Chinese have red bean or sweet potato paste. The concept of birthday cake did not exist in China before, it was introduced by foreigners. Chinese people traditionally eat noodles for birthdays because they symbolize a long life. It is also very hard to find a good chocolate bar. (Insider tip: if you are in China, raving for real chocolate, and don’t want to spend your salary buying expensive imported chocolate in the supermarket, try the one from Ikea. It is very decent and only costs 9 or 10 kuai). So, because Chinese sweets are so different, it is kind of understandable that good western sweets are scarce here. However, I was surprised to find out that cheap chocolate pastries from Family Mart in Japan taste actually good. Why can Japanese people make good western sweets and Chinese cannot? There must be historical reasons. But I digress.
Have I ever mentioned that I have spent all my birthdays in China since 2006? So I have a lot of experience in birthday cakes. During my second year in Beijing, I celebrated my birthday together with a Bolivian guy in a bar in Wudaokou. We got a cake from a bakery that was in the first floor of that building with many KTVs and Korean bars next to the subway station. After blowing the candles, we cut it and gave a piece to all of our friends. When I tried that cake… oh my God, I can’t even think about it. It was SALTY. There was something salty sprinkled on top of the cake. That was definitely the worst cake experience I’ve had in China.
But there’s been many more.
The most common type of birthday cake here is a huge mess of whipped cream covering a very unremarkable inside of plain sponge cake and topped with pieces of fruit. It is a shame that this is even called birthday cake.
Sometimes bakeries get creative and offer a different version of the whipped cream mess, but with the same flavour:
After a couple of years of continuous disappointments in the cake department (not only for my birthday, also for my friends’ birthdays), I finally learnt my lesson: the only type of cake that is somewhat acceptable from a common Chinese bakery is cheese cake. It doesn’t look like a birthday cake, but at least it can be moderately enjoyed.
Then I moved to Shanghai, the paradise of foreigness in China. There I discovered a shop called Awfully Chocolate and my life changed. My birthday in 2010 was definitely a good one.
But this cake shop is not Chinese, it is Singaporean if I am not mistaken. So it cannot count as a Chinese cake.
Last year, as my birthday was the day that we were leaving for Spain, C. ordered a cake sent to my office on the previous day. But the delivery guy tripped and spoiled the cake. The store offered to send a replacement, but the only cake they had available was a mooncake shaped cake. Peach flavour, I think it was. Definitely weird. I don’t really think these Chinese-western fusion cakes are going to be successful.
In Suzhou, my favourite cake shop is a Malaysian store called Secret Recipe. Their cakes taste pretty good! But I haven’t been there in more than a year. In fact I think I should go right now and enjoy an afternoon tea!
Have you tried Chinese birthday cakes? What is your favourite type of cake?