Anyone who’s kept up with Great British Bake Off will remember the infamous ‘Japanese Week’ – an episode which upset a lot of people for perpetuating stereotypes of East Asian cuisine. The show has previously educated viewers about wonderful bakes such as kek lapis Sarawak, ma’amoul, and korovai, so it was especially disheartening to see them revert to matcha crepe cakes (not a thing) or steamed buns (which are more traditionally Chinese).
The most egregious error was making ‘kawaii cakes’ (translation: boring cakes with Japanese designs/ingredients). Japan has its own tradition of baking, and a cake that instantly comes to mind is the castella cake. This cake may be simple, but it reveals a rich history of Japan’s food, trade and cultural history, and it’s easily the definitive Japanese cake.
Japan usually splits confectionary into two categories: wagashi (Japanese confectionary) and yogashi (foreign). Wagashi have different cooking methods, ingredients and functions to yogashi. Western ovens are not commonly installed in Japanese homes – they’re usually equipped with smaller fish ovens. This is why typical wagashi are often cold, or made without an oven.
Furthermore, there’s a shorter history of typical baking ingredients in Japan due to its geographical position. Sugar had to be imported and was therefore quite expensive, reserved strictly for medicinal uses. Butter similarly had to be imported, restricted only to those who could afford it. In fact, dairy products in general were not consumed much until the Meiji era, which occurs after Westernisation. Most Japanese sweets are plant-based, which is evidenced in the many ingredients typical in wagashi such as anko (red bean paste), kanten (agar-agar; derived from algae), and kuzu starch (from the roots of the Japanese arrowroot).
Wagashi also play an important role in tea ceremonies. They’re usually served to offset the bitterness of matcha and eaten before the tea is drunken. Wagashi are also visually symbolic of the seasons – there’s plum or cherry blossoms in the spring, verdant bamboo leaves in the summer, the rich autumn leaves and finally, the crisp white snow in the winter.
The castella cake occupies an interesting position in Japanese confectionary, being somewhat a mix of yogashi and wagashi. It was developed during the Nanban period, beginning in the 1540s when the Europeans arrived in Japan. Portuguese merchants and missionaries arrived in Nagasaki – the only port open for foreign commerce – and they exchanged their cakes in order to have permission to spread the word and establish trade relations.
One of these cakes was the Pao de Castela which became kasutera (castella cake). Although it’s closer to the Pao de Lo, the castella cake instantly became an exotic delicacy amongst the Japanese aristocracy. It was incorporated into tea ceremonies and was established as a part of nanbangashi – Japanese desserts specifically from the Nanban era. The ingredients are simple: eggs, flour, mizuame starch syrup and sugar. However, it’s common to see it flavoured with chocolate or matcha. Due to Japan’s rule over Taiwan, the castella cake has become popular there, too, becoming viral on the internet for its delightfully squishy texture. However, you’ll find the more traditional, crumblier version in Japan, where they can be purchased in thin, rectangular strips.
There’s so much more to Japan than matcha and kawaii-culture: the castella cake is just one of the amazing desserts that contestants could have baked during their time there. Whilst there are certainly ‘challenges’ to Japanese desserts, producers should devote the same amount of time and respect to Japanese food as they do to French bakes. They’ve done a disservice to the British and Japanese public by presenting a half-baked picture of Japan’s extensive history.