Madame White Snake, Leifeng Pagoda, Three Pools Mirroring the Moon (a classic scene of West Lake), Longjing tea … Those are some of the cultural elements that remind people of Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province. In June this year, a series of fondant cakes, made by Chen Yao and her partner, Wang Hui, and which contained beautiful designs of those Hangzhou elements, were displayed in New York, the United States. The cakes attracted the attention of people from around the world. Chen has been interested in traditional Chinese culture since she was a little girl. Now the owner and operator of a studio, she hopes to make more desserts that will help introduce excellent Chinese culture to the world.
Grand Central Terminal, in Manhattan, New York, is a station known for hustle and bustle — all year round. In addition to being a train station, it is a perfect public venue for exhibiting works of art. In June this year, the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou hosted an event in Grand Central Terminal to promote the city's image and attract tourists. A series of fondant cakes (cakes coated and decorated with a sweet paste made from sugar and water) made by Chen and Wang were among the exhibits on display. "Enduring Memories of Hangzhou" was the theme of the cakes.
"Many participants queued up for a long time to see our cakes. I was quite surprised by the great interest they showed in our works. They asked us details about the designs on the cakes. Some of them said they would like to visit Hangzhou to see with their eyes the real scenes in our city," Chen recalled.
Chen's family attaches great importance to studying and promoting traditional Chinese culture. "My grandfather taught me ancient poetry and literature when I was young. So, I developed an interest in traditional Chinese culture and art at an early age," Chen says. She learned how to play the zither (a traditional Chinese musical instrument that consists of two sets of strings stretched over a flat box) when she was 8. Her major was music performance when she attended college.
Prior to 2016, when she established her dessert studio, Chen worked (for five years) in a State-owned enterprise. Chen, though, was interested in baking, and she often baked desserts, such as cakes and biscuits, which she shared with her colleagues. "My work schedule at the enterprise was stable. I didn't have enough opportunities to take challenges and experience something different at my post. So, I decided to quit my job and shift my career to baking," Chen told Women of China. She named her studio Magic Shiji ("Shiji" literally means "food notes").
Chen long had an interest in making various types of desserts, including Chinese desserts, such as green-bean cakes and candied rice fritters, and Western desserts, such as mousse, as well as the Japanese sweet wagashi.
Chen's family now lives in Hangzhou. She says she has a deep emotional bond with the capital of Zhejiang. Before she made the fondant cakes "Enduring Memories of Hangzhou," she had made a fondant cake, entitled "Memories of Jiangnan," which highlighted the beautiful scenes of the region to the south of the Yangtze River.
Adding Chinese Marks
After Chen and Wang, who is skilled in making sugar figures on fondant cakes, received the invitation to make cakes that highlighted the culture of Hangzhou, the two women spent a long time visiting many places in Hangzhou to get inspiration. They changed the designs several times. They discussed what elements could best represent the charm of Hangzhou, and how to introduce those elements to foreigners.
What were the major challenges they faced when they were making those cakes? "The challenges were mainly in two aspects," Chen answered. "First, we had to pick, from a variety of options, the most typical elements of Hangzhou to be displayed on our cakes. The space for adding decorative designs onto a cake was limited, so we had to choose the most suitable cultural elements.
"The second challenge was transportation. The sizes of our cakes were all quite big. Fondant cakes were easy to break. So, it was not easyfor us to transport the cakes to the US. To some extent, it was the first time that dessert producers in China succeeded in transporting fondant cakes, of such big sizes, to a destination far away."
Fondant cake originated in the United Kingdom. It has become more and more popular in China in recent years. Before she went to the US to display her cakes, Chen thought people in the West should know much more about fondant cakes, especially compared with Chinese. She was surprised by the foreign spectators' feedback when they looked at her cakes.
"The cakes I took to the US with my partner were quite different from ordinary fondant cakes those spectators had recognized before. They asked us how we were able to add those delicate figures and patterns onto the cakes." Chen said she wore a dress with the design of beautiful bamboo in Jiangnan, on the day she participated in the exhibition in New York. She also wore a traditional Chinese hairpin. Many of the spectators asked Chen if they could pose for photos with her. She was glad, as she realized they all had a great interest in Chinese culture.
In Chen's opinion, both pleasant music and tasty food can bring people a sense of happiness. When she organizes a salon for participants to learn baking skills, she likes to play music and encourage participants to appreciate the melodies.
"Eating delicious food and listening to beautiful music give people 'double-healing effects'. Music therapy is an efficient method for people to release psychological stress. Baking is also an efficient way to heal one's heart. People who love baking are generally not likely to suffer from depression, because they are content when they are baking pastries," Chen explains.
What is in her future? Chen says she will explore new ways to combine traditional Chinese elements with baked food. She is currently working on a series of biscuits, the designs of which will reflect China's 24 solar terms (knowledge of time developed through observation of the sun's annual motion). She has studied traditional Chinese painting during the past two years. She has also learned classical dancing to improve her body shape. "Zither, Chinese painting, classical dancing and cakes, those are all wonderful things to me. I want to combine them together," she says.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly September 2018 issue)