When the Changzhou people made a rhyme for their sesame cake

While on an intangible cultural heritage expedition in Changzhou with a group of global experts, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai tries Changzhou’s famed sesame cake. This large local snack is a little like the common shaobing, but also very different in terms of its richness of flavour. This is the third article of a four-part series on Changzhou food and drink.
Changzhou's rich sesame cake.
Changzhou's rich sesame cake.

(Photos provided by Cheng Pei-kai.)

During our intangible cultural heritage tour of Changzhou, Ji, our group leader said repeatedly that we should try all the famous Changzhou snacks. Among them, the most representative snack is the sesame cake (大麻糕), steeped in local street food culture and most certainly already a piece of authentic intangible cultural heritage that has been included in Jiangsu’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

After our dinner banquet, Ji again gave “orders” to our global team members not to have the hotel breakfast the next day but to gather at 8.30am where we would set off by chartered bus to some Changzhou snacks. 

Eating and drinking are all part of learning!

The American and Canadian folklorists didn’t understand what was going on and kept asking me, “No breakfast tomorrow? The hotel doesn’t provide breakfast? What are we going out to study at 8.30am in the morning?”

The Japanese experts who knew a bit of Mandarin probably understood a few words. They butted in to ask, “Are we going to eat a little (the Chinese characters for “snack” (小吃) literally means “little/small eat”) but not eat a lot? We Japanese eat a lot for breakfast; the Chinese don’t eat rice in the morning, they just eat a little.”

The South Korean expert rolled her eyes at the Japanese expert — the student of a prestigious professor, she had earned her doctorate degree from Harvard University and was also proficient in Chinese. She explained in fluent English, “We’re not having breakfast at the hotel tomorrow as we’re setting off at 8.30am to try the most authentic local snacks for breakfast, and food that has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage at that.”

The Americans were elated, “It turns out that we will be ‘eating’ intangible cultural heritage tomorrow! Eating and drinking are all part of learning! Chinese culture is indeed profound, living up to its name.” 

But hiding beneath that flaky sesame skin was a strange oily pastry filling which disturbed me — I knew it would not be easy to deal with...

Transforming into true cultural heritage

Early next morning, Ji brought us to Shuangguifang (双桂坊), a district currently undergoing rejuvenation. He told us that this had been the liveliest district during the Ming and Qing dynasties; over the years, the precinct has undergone urban renewal, turning into a modern business district bustling with activity.

Through its transformation, the area has realised the true essence of cultural heritage — diverse preservation and the passing down of heritage, including intangible cultural heritage, and keeping its most authentic cultural characteristics intact.

Indeed the district turned itself into a Changzhou snack street alley that seeks to restore the prosperous marketplace of the past to its former glory. 

Shuangguifang was the liveliest district during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Changzhou folklore society specially arranged a glorious “snack banquet” for us, trotting out a total of 12 authentic snacks of various varieties. After tasting five to six of them, while my eyes were still wide with craving, the size of my stomach fell short and my bowels were starting to protest. Ah, the difficult life of a Peking stuffed duck! But my mouth and tongue seemed to be under a spell, as I continued to chomp down the never-ending flow of food on the table, and keenly waited for the sesame cake. 

Dreamy sesame cake          

The sesame cakes were finally served. They truly lived up to their name and were indeed humongous. At first glance, each piece looked like a big shaobing (烧饼), all golden yellow and flaky on the outside, like a cake. But hiding beneath that flaky sesame skin was a strange oily pastry filling which disturbed me — I knew it would not be easy to deal with; eating it whole would land me in the hospital. Ji saw my hesitation and said, “Don’t worry, we will cut a piece up and share it with everyone.”      

There’s a reason why the sesame cake is so big — it actually reflects Changzhou’s local street culture. In the past, the sesame cakes weren’t so huge. They were just like the everyday sock-looking pastry (袜底酥, so called because a Song dynasty emperor mistook these for socks) found in Jiangsu and Zhejiang — thin, flaky and small enough to be finished in two, three bites. The sesame cakes were either round- or oval-shaped, and came in flavours such as sweet, savoury, salt and pepper or topped with green onions. The Changzhou people called them “the sole of straw shoes” (草鞋底) because they looked like shoe soles.

The Changzhou people even have a rhyme for it: “Sesame cake eat eat, tofu soup match match (麻糕吃吃,豆腐汤搭搭).”

The snack banquet served.
The snack banquet served.

Until around the late Qing dynasty, Changzhou’s labourers such as cooks, movers, boat pullers and sedan chair coolies complained that these pastries (sold for three copper coins apiece) were too small and not enough to fill the stomach. Later on, fillings fit for three pastries were combined to make one giant pastry (sold for nine copper coins apiece), and this became the unique sesame cake breakfast food of Changzhou as people knew it. 

And the reason why sesame cake is called sesame cake (糕, gao) and not sesame pastry (饼, bing) is because sesame cake does not taste or feel like regular shaobing. The texture of sesame cake is fluffy, soft, flaky, crispy and most importantly, rich — if it’s not rich enough, it’s not delicious and there’s no kick; but if it’s too rich, it would be too greasy and not tasty anymore. The reason why Changzhou’s sesame cake is so exemplary is because it’s rich but not greasy, and flaky but not oily.  

Taking a small bite of the golden yellow sesame cake, I was immediately struck by how buttery soft it was. The sesame skin was crispy and refreshing, while the fragrance of green onions emanated from the salt and pepper filling, reminding me of the shaobing I had eaten at the original Yong He Soy Milk shop in Taipei 60 years ago when I was little. The only difference was that the sesame cake had distinct layers and a richer flavour, like a ray of sunshine stretching over the fields during the autumn harvest. Ji suggested having it with tofu soup, as the locals do. The Changzhou people even have a rhyme for it: “Sesame cake eat eat, tofu soup match match (麻糕吃吃,豆腐汤搭搭).”

This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “常州大麻糕” in 2016.

Related: A taste of Changzhou: Best from the rivers and lakes | China's 'latte art' from a thousand years back | The power of food memories in shaping who we are | Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage and the preservation of Lingnan culture