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Distinctive cakemaker upholds tasty tradition
By Tan Weiyun

GU Huonan, 65, is a farmer with a signature talent. He's the acknowledged local expert in making Yexie cakes, a time-honored snack in the eponymous village in Songjiang District.

Stepping over the threshold of his modest rural home, a visitor can see why he has won that distinction.

The fire crackles from dawn to dusk in the large clay oven he built in his small backyard. The kitchen is filled with bags of flour, and the dining table is often arrayed with neatly aligned, homemade cakes waiting to be steamed. Gu's wife, Jiang Jinnai, 68, bustles about getting the water boiled.

Made of rice and stuffed with any one of dozens of fillings, such as sweetened red bean or jujube pastes, the Yexie cake is a rich, square-shaped pastry - sweet but not cloying, soft but not sticky. The snack has been officially included in Shanghai's cultural heritage list of products, recipes and folk arts.

"During busy times, like Spring Festival, I have to cook almost 2,500 cakes a day," says Gu, pointing to a calendar where delivery dates are carefully recorded. His customers range from fellow farmers to downtown Shanghai residents willing to drive an hour to buy the cakes.

"I've got a crazy month coming up," he says, of the prelude to the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 10 this year.

In Shanghai, traditions like Yexie cake have a prominent place during festival times of the year.

Yexie cake can be traced back to 1573 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Legend has it that the cake was first created by a businessman named Shi Maolong, for reasons now obscure. Since then, the recipe and cooking technique have been handed down from generation to generation. Gu has been making the cakes for almost three decades.

"At the beginning, I learned the recipe just for fun," he says, "but gradually I became attached to this hand skill.

As a young man, Gu drove a tractor hauling bricks and served as a "barefoot doctor" in his rural village. His life changed one day when he met Zeng Yumei, a descendant of the Shi family, who taught him how to make Yexie cakes.

"Each step is done by hand, which takes time," Gu says. "So people have to order weeks in advance."

Brisk business

Business is always brisk. His cakes have become an indispensible part of town celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies and the blessing rituals at groundbreakings.

Gu's small house is his kitchen. He made specially designed bamboo steamers and built the oven, which can accommodate 128 cakes at a time.

"Oh, it's a great helper that improves efficiency," he says.

Gu and Jiang get up at 2am to begin kneading the dough, mixing fillings, lighting the stove and boiling water to steam the cakes.

Their whole morning is devoted to the task of cake-making.

The recipe for the cakes has remained pretty much the same for 430 years. Gu's recipe uses 95 percent ordinary rice and only 5 percent glutinous rice.

"Some people with stomach disorders can't digest glutinous rice, but they can enjoy my cakes," he says.

Both rices are soaked in cold water for seven days to allow fermentation. The water is changed daily. The fermented rice is ground into a powder with a stone pestle and then sifted three times to create a fine flour texture.

The flour is mixed with sugar, lard, oil and different fillings, and then placed on a bed of lotus leaves before being put into a bamboo steamer.

"I used to use more sugar," Gu says, "but nowadays people are more health conscious and don't like things too sweet."

In summer, Gu adds peppermint oil to the flour, giving the cakes a refreshing taste.

The cakes can be stored for a long time. Even in summer, they keep for a week at room temperature.

Chef Gu worries about the future.

"I'm old," he says. "Who among the younger generation will take up this skill?"

The local government worries, too. It wants this local culinary art preserved, so it arranged for Gu to take on apprentices, all of them recruited from a local restaurant in a neighboring village.

The government provides an annual subsidy of 30,000 yuan (US$3,839) to support the apprenticeships.

"I'm happy when I am making cakes, and I hope people who eat them are happy, too," Gu says. "I'm willing to teach anyone who wants to learn. My dream is to have a big kitchen where my apprentices and I can expand cake-making to a signature industry for the whole town."

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