Its Cake Culture

Text: Rick Charette
Photos: Maggie Song

The people of Taiwan are fascinated with eating, and revel in ingredients and tastes as close to the field as possible. Snacking is a passion, and every place, down to each little village and town, lays claim it seems to unique contributions to the culinary world – its own “famous foods.” Sweet cakes and pastries are favorite gourmand items, the “cakes” most often created in bite-sized (or multi-bite-sized) morsels rather than the family-sized creations of the West.

Traditional cakes and pastries are characterized by flaky crusts, innards fluffy and outside coverings often a bit crispy and/or crumbly, with heavy use of items associated with farm living such as egg yolks, taro, adzuki beans, mung beans, and so on. The taro and beans will be made into a paste and lightly sweetened, most often with cane sugar or maltose, but the taste of the good earth is still there, and both customers and bakers place great emphasis on getting the ingredients from the field to your palate as quickly as possible and with as little adulteration as possible.

Today’s consumers in Taiwan enjoy variety – younger ones, confectioners aver, demand it – and sellers endlessly roll out new treats, but you’ll find many of these are based on traditional varieties with some tailoring done to suit current tastes and lifestyles. The “new” consumer still looks for his/her cakes and pastries to be handmade, and whether officially “traditional” or “new,” these days all are almost invariably lighter, with less cholesterol, less fat, and less sugar used in their creation.

Many of the country’s most venerable cake and pastry shops started business providing the traditional sweet handmade things used as sacrificial offerings by devotees at nearby temples. While continuing to do so, the proprietors of the most successful names in today’s market have understood that they must expand their clientele base by offering new-style variations of classic treats as well as all-new taste adventures. Following we visit the flagship outlets of three celebrated confectioners that have discovered the secret recipe of modern Taiwan cake-culture enterprise, each expanding into chains, each offering a long and proud history as a primary ingredient, and each very much still “all in the family.”

Jiu Zhen Nan
Jiu Zhen Nan is perhaps Taiwan’s best-known name when it comes to Chinese-style xibing or engagement cakes – literally “happiness cakes.” Established in 1890 in Taiwan’s oldest city, Tainan, the business originally made only rice-based traditional treats because wheat flour was nigh impossible to come by in Taiwan. The shop was moved to the port city of Kaohsiung in 1945 because while Tainan was becoming something of a sleepy backwater, Kaohsiung’s port facilities had been systematically built up by the Japanese when they controlled Taiwan 1895-1945, and the city was burgeoning. Wheat flour became readily available as a result of U.S. aid after the Second World War, and the shop began making engagement cakes. These have long been the confectioner’s best-selling offering, today accounting for 40% of overall sales.

President Eric Lee took over operations in 1996. He sees the chain’s mission as preserving and enhancing Taiwan’s traditional cake and pastry culture, and has carried out progressive changes. Ingredients are key, only premium-grade items are used, and the brand has been brought upscale. “Middle-aged and older customers want tradition, but the younger customer wants change. We specially target modern consumers from age 28 to 37, who have the disposable income and willingness to pay more for premium products. We open outlets in upscale environments where such people go, such as high-level malls/department stores and High Speed Rail stations. While continuing to make traditional Chinese items, we also offer variations that suit our target customers. For example, the items traditionally used in the sweet and salty engagement-cake fillings have been adzuki-bean paste, nuts, meat stewed with soy sauce, a thin layer of dried egg yolk, etc. We have broadened their appeal by offering fillings of pineapple paste, coconut paste, mung-bean paste, and so on. Engagement cakes have traditionally been very large, and we have shrunk their size so you can eat one in a single sitting. All our items are now also light in calories.”

Eric was originally a real-estate developer, and has an eye for elegant design. Jiu Zhen Nan’s beautiful gift packaging has brought it a prestigious iF Design Award, and each of its shop interiors is a cool, alluring statement in understated elegance.

Lee Cake
The Lee Cake shop is on Dihua Street, the key artery in one of Taipei’s most important heritage quarters, a wholesale-shop street for traditional-style regional goods that has been thriving since the latter half of the 19th century. The oldest building on the street went up in the 1850s. Lee Cake was opened in the 1890s, and the fifth-generation proprietors, like the owners of many local businesses, have in recent years thoroughly refurbished their traditional-style shophouse (long and narrow, with two/three floors, and with a retail outlet in front at street level for walk-in business). The long street’s facades have once again become attractive works of art.

Lee Cake started as a retail store selling the cakes and pastries used in temple worship and festivals. The Lee family thereafter progressed into making all items on its own. Sales manager Rita Lee, from the fifth generation, says that “We still make all the same ‘traditional’ goods, but with modern twists in order to meet the different tastes and needs of modern consumers.” A prime example of this is the company’s best-selling treat, the ping’an turtle, a cake shaped like a turtle, a traditional symbol of longevity, and stamped with the characters ping’an (平安), meaning “peace and safety.”

“These are traditionally made with flour,” says Lee, “which molds easily even when refrigerated. So we instead make our turtles using peanut powder for the shell and maltose with black-sesame paste for the filling, creating a treat that’s just mildly sweet and is not sticky like the traditional version. These make them easier to eat for older folk. We’ve also reduced the size so you can eat them in a single bite – an especially big hit with kids, and an effective way to introduce traditional Taiwan religious culture to the younger generation.” These changes have made the cakes popular year-round, not just when religious festivals come around.

Another good example of how new approaches are brought to old-time favorites is Lee Cake’s traditional pingxi cakes, the shop’s no. 2 seller. The standard filling is mung-bean paste, but Lee Cake instead uses butter-bean paste, thus eliminating the stickiness and allowing seniors to continue eating them.

Yu Jan Shin
Yu Jan Shin was founded in Dajia, a country town in central Taiwan, in 1966. Its origins are decidedly unusual. Dajia’s iconic attraction is Zhenlan Temple, one of the country’s best-known temples dedicated to Mazu, Goddess of the Sea. The founder ran a small sundry-goods shop near the temple, and according to Alan Chen, a manager who is a member of the third generation in the family-run enterprise, “My grandfather was told by Mazu when communicating with her through divination blocks at the temple that he should go into the traditional cake and pastry business. Though he knew nothing about the trade, he did as advised. His first effort at traditional bridal cakes produced ‘edibles’ so hard that his customers complained that even smashing them against a wall couldn’t break them.

“Things have gone much better since then.”

Yu Jan Shin’s flagship outlet is in one of Dajia’s most attractive and important heritage buildings, a tourist attraction in itself. The striking Baroque-style work of architecture is embellished with finely wrought wall and column carvings of Mazu and Dajia’s most famous products. On the second floor is the Dajia Three Treasures Museum, which has displays on Zhenlan Temple/Mazu, Dajia’s woven handicrafts, and Yu Jan Shin’s signature product.

That product is the naiyou subing or “butter crispy cake.” According to Alan Chen, in Taiwan’s Qing Dynasty pioneering days Da’an Port near Dajia was an important port of entry for immigrants from China. Many carried traditional subing or crispy cakes on the cross-strait voyage, and their safe arrival, plus the name of the port – da’an means “great peace” – eventually lent positive symbolism to the cakes made in Dajia, which became a popular choice in the region for the pastry gifts traditionally given to announce engagements and for offerings to deities. In 1983 the naiyou or butter version was born when Yu Jan Shin began using all-natural butter instead of the traditionally used lard, and made the cakes smaller. The butter crispy cake has since become a Dajia specialty product with an island-wide reputation, and a popular gift item. Crispy on the outside, it has a filling that is elegantly soft, creamy, rich, and aromatic.


English and Chinese

Alan Chen陳穎政
Dajia Three Treasures Museum大甲三寶文化館
Eric H. C. Lee李雄慶
naiyou subing奶油酥餅
ping’an turtle 平安龜
pingxi cakes平西餅
Rita Lee李榮煥
Zhenlan Temple鎮瀾宮


Jiu Zhen Nan (舊振南)
Add: 84, Zhongzheng 4th Rd., Qianjin Dist., Kaohsiung City (高雄市前金區中正四路84號)
Tel:(07) 288-8202

Lee Cake (李亭香)
Add: 309, Sec. 1, Dihua St., Datong District, Taipei City (台北市大同區迪化街一段309號)
Tel:(02) 2557-8716

Yu Jan Shin (裕珍馨)
Add: 67, Guangming St., Dajia District, Taichung City (台中市大甲區光明路67號)
Tel:(04) 2687-2559


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