Remembering royal cakes
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From green beans, glutinous rice or arrowroots, the talented hands of a Hue woman can turn them into different types of cakes to serve guests and to offer to their ancestors during the Tet holiday.

Phuc linh cakes

Fragrant phuc lich cakes

Despite being over 85, artisan Mai Thi Tra still keeps the old tradition of making cakes and jam every spring. From the beginning of December (Lunar calendar), the artisan's kitchen is fragrant with Tet’s aroma of various types of cakes and jam: banh in , banh thuan, ginger jam, kumquat jam... Every year, on her tray of Tet cakes, a small, beautiful, pure white cake is present which has a rather lovely name: phuc linh.

She does not know when the phuc linh came about, nor does she know why it is called phuc linh. Ever since she was little, artisan Mai Thi Tra had seen the cakes on the golden trays of the royal palace or in noble families. At Tet holiday or whenever there is a death anniversary, her mother would make phuc linh cakes as well as many other cakes as offerings to the ancestors.

The phuc linh cake is made from arrowroots. In the past, in the garden of artisan Mai Thi Tra, there had always been both local and foreign arrowroot varieties planted. Whenever Tet came, she would go to the garden to dig the tubers and grind them to make cake flour.

“Arrowroot flour is cool and healthy. It has a cooling effect, so in the past it was often grown in home gardens. Cakes made from arrowroots are more delicious, but because the tubers are small and the yield is low, few people grow them. Arrowroot flour is easy to distinguish from other types of flour because it is very smooth and it feels glossy to the touch,” the artisan explained.

Each stage of making phuc linh cakes shows the sophistication and ingenuity of Hue women, especially the dough making process which determines the taste of the cakes. With 1 kg of flour, the artisan prepared 800g of sugar. To make the cake fragrant, she cut pandan leaves and roasted them with the flour. This is also a technique to determine when the flour is ready.

The arrowroot flour was spread on top of the pandan leaves and was roasted until the leaves were crispy and the flour was cooked. Mrs. Tra noted that the flour must be roasted carefully on medium heat with constant turning. The flour must always remain on top of the leaves in order to absorb the fragrant aroma and to retain its pure white color. 

Just the flour preparation process alone was enough to illustrate the meticulousness of the people in the past. After roasting, the flour was filtered through a sieve. The fine powder was then spread on fresh banana leaves and placed on the ground to rest. If the flour is left to rest outdoors, it is necessary to be cautious since heavy dew can wet the flour.

While waiting for the flour to rest, the eyes of artisan Mai Thi Tra looked to the distant, nostalgic for the old Tet holiday. Born in a noble family, Mrs. Tra had an aunt named Mai Thi Vang, the wife of Emperor Duy Tan. Her father was a district mandarin, so her family is skilled in making royal dishes.

Early in December of the Lunar calendar, her house would be bustling in Tet atmosphere with many sophisticated and meticulous types of cakes and jam. She and her sisters would help her mother to make cakes and mischievously spoiled them to have a taste. Thanks to the family tradition, Hue's girls in the past were all skilled in the kitchen. From the age of 4, Mrs. Tra knew how to make phu the cake mould.

Leaving the sweet memory, the artisan began to prepare the sugar coating. She took sugar and added a little water. She cooked on low heat until the sugar crystals were fine into powder. The last steps included making the cakes with a mould, gently drying them and wrapping them with clear plastic film to show off the pure white color and the contours of the cake.

The flour dough of phuc linh cakes does not adhere well to the sugar and can easily fall apart, so it is essential to handle the cakes gently. However, because it is easy to crumble, the cake melts smoothly in the mouth when eaten.

If you wish to fully enjoy the flavour of phuc linh cakes, there is a certain way of eating you must abide to. Take the pure white cake to your mouth, take a small bite, then close you mouth. The cake melts in the palate, fragrant with the scent of arrowroot tubers mixed with the aroma of pandan leaves. Take a sip of tea and you will be able to enjoy the flavours of Tet!

Remembering the tastes of the lost cakes

Artisan Mai Thi Tra recalled, in the past Tet, in forbidden palace and noble households, there were many delicious cakes. The te dieu (seven fires cake) was one of those cakes. With the same process as making phuc linh cakes, the te dieu cakes were made from roasted mung beans.

They were called the seven fires cake because there were 7 elaborate stages of making them. First, the mung beans were soaked in hot water and the outer shells were cleaned off. After roasting, the beans are ground or pounded well into fine flour. The flour was then placed on the ground to rest. The sugar coating was prepared and mixed with the flour. The final step was to press into the mould to create the final product. 

Baking is also very hard work. In the past, in order to bake delicious cakes, people would carve and bend bamboo to sandwich the cakes for baking until they were golden and crispy. Artisan Mai Thi Tra said, "thanks to the meticulous stages, despite making cakes from mung beans, when eating, you do not smell the beans. The cakes would be crispy and delicious.”

In the old Tet in the forbidden palace, there were also bai cakes (card cakes). They were called so because the cakes were in the shape of cards. Bai cakes were made from sticky rice flour. Whole grains of sticky rice were roasted to retain the scent. The hulls were then cleaned off and the rice pounded, sieved, dried and mixed with sugar powder. The cakes after being moulded were only heated and not baked like the te dieu cakes. 

The uniqueness of the card cake was that it was cut into 5 even layers, as thin as 5 cards stacked orderly and wrapped in paper. When eating, the cake would have the scent of grapefruit flowers, as the flour was dried with grapefruit flowers.

Artisan Mai Thi Tra also learned how to make banh in nhe (lightly printed-cakes) from Ms. Ho Thi Thanh, Lady Principal of Dong Khanh School. The flour-making process is the same as the conventional cakes, but the cakes are not pressed into the cake moulds. Instead, the flour is sieved into a large cake mold. After waiting for the cake to stick together, it is then cut into smaller pieces and wrapped in paper. Although not as compactly pressed as ordinary printed-cake, the cake is still structurally intact thanks to the moisture of the flour and sugar.

According to artisan Mai Thi Tra, though made from ordinary ingredients like seeds and tubers, the royal cakes are elegant, refined and clean thanks to an elaborate and meticulous making process. Each type of cakes is wrapped in a different color for easy distinction.

Te dieu cakes are wrapped in green paper, lotus seed-flour cakes in yellow paper, printed-cakes in blue and pink paper, and phuc linh cakes in white paper... The Tet cakes wrap inside them the taste of the heaven and earth during spring. Unfortunately, nowadays, rarely anyone makes bai cakes or te dieu cakes. Only the phuc linh cakes are still served by many families during Tet.

Story and photo: Cat An