By TONG CHANGYOU
IT has been a tradition for Beijingers to grow, appreciate, and even eat flowers since ancient times. Various flowers blossom throughout the entire year from early spring and late summer to fresh autumn and midwinter. The best time to savor flowers is in March, when willows turn green and flowers blossom in different colors.
Beijingers prefer eating seasonal food, which is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. It was recorded in Yanjing Suishiji, a book about local folklore and customs in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), that in April, rose flower cakes and Chinese wisteria flower cakes were the seasonal homemade delicacies.
In the past, it was a custom for local people to eat steamed or baked Chinese wisteria flower cakes when the flowers blossomed in March and April. Their flamboyant purple color and strong fragrance allured people to converge in front of the bakeries where a bulletin board advertised that “Chinese wisteria flower cakes for sale!” The ways in which the cake was made differed in the imperial palace, mansions of princes and homes of ordinary people. Cakes for the imperial palace were exclusively supplied by the Zhengmingzhai desserts shop every spring when the flowers blossom. In mansions of princes, wisteria flowers were grown in their courtyards. The servants picked flowers and made cakes themselves.
The method of making such cakes in ordinary people’s homes is very simple: first, prepare the filling by marinating fresh flowers in light salt brine, and then stir evenly with seasonings; second, make the dough and divide it into two parts: add lard to make the first dough, and add water and lard to make the second dough. Then wrap the first dough in the second dough and repeatedly roll the dough to form a long strip shape. Cut the rod-like dough into small portions, put fillings inside and form each into a bun, and bake them in the oven for 20 minutes at 150 degrees centigrade.
Rose flower cake has a history of over 300 years. As the flower season is very short, making and tasting cakes is time-sensitive. It is said that Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) in the Qing Dynasty once dressed up as a commoner and ate a rose cake made by Zhang Xi at a desserts shop on the Dashilan Street to the west of Qianmen Avenue. The fragrant and tasty cake left a deep impression on the emperor who later invited the chef to work in the royal kitchen.
Rose cakes made from the flowers grown in Beijing’s Miaofeng Mountain at Mentougou District offer the most authentic taste. Those flowers have been cultivated for several hundred years, boasting big petals, gorgeous color, aromatic flavor, and high oil content.
The way of making rose cakes is similar to wisteria flower cakes, but the filling is without cooked fat pork. The cakes are served with their burgundy-colored fillings and a golden crispy crust imprinted with “Fine Rose Cake.”
Both Chinese wisteria cakes and rose cakes can now be bought from Beijing’s time-honored brand Daoxiangcun disserts shop.
Zhengmingzhai desserts shop is located at today’s Dongcheng District. It is a time-honored brand with 100 years of history whose products include crusty cakes, fried cakes, pastries, and soft cakes.
Beijing’s Daoxiangcun was established in 1895 when Guo Yusheng – a man from Nanjing came to Beijing and opened his first desserts shop near Qianmen Avenue. Now, Daoxiangcun has been listed among the first group of China’s Time-Honored Brands.
TONG CHANGYOU is a Beijing Cuisine master and a member of the China Cuisine Association and the Beijing Cuisine Association.