Cake time

20180217_181958It is time to celebrate! Thank you to the 102 people who are Patreon subscribers to the blog. I wrote when we hit 100 Patreon supporters we’d celebrate with a virtual cake, so here is our cake. I also decided we need to do more than just celebrate with a picture of a cake, we’re going all in – a whole blog post about cakes in different cultures.

I asked friends to weigh in on the topic. My friend Bao asked if I was writing just about cakes or more broadly sweets since cakes come in many different forms. There are sweet cakes and savory cakes, cakes you eat in the morning and some you eat at night. The world of cakes and sweets is rich and deserves a post.

Cakes and Cultures

Many have studied cultures and have determined the essential elements that define cultures – language, religion, values/attitudes, social structure, communication, and some people list food. I believe culture defines food, and vice versa food defines culture. How we celebrate with food is also a defining part of a culture. Many cultures have their own versions of sweets and cakes. Bao mentioned the Vietnamese word for cake is bánh, which is part of the name of bánh mi — the name of Vietnamese sandwiches.

fruit cake

Ice cream cake vs. Asian fruit cake –h/t Stacy for finding this on Facebook

During mid-autumn festival, harvest time, mooncakes are popular treats in the Chinese culture. These round cakes symbolize togetherness and reunion and are often served with tea. Stacy, a friend, said she coveted the mooncakes with the salty egg yolks, and through her church, she discovered other types of mooncakes – red bean paste, lotus paste, and even durian. Some other Chinese sweet and savory treats are niin go, rice cake cut into diamonds, and the beloved Asian/Chinese fruit cake – a white cake with layers of fruit in the middle. If you’ve had the fruit cake you’ll remember it – not sugary-sweet like Costco frosting filled cakes which is disappointing as a kid, but delicious and appealing as an adult.

One of the best pound cakes I ever had came from an African American friend. She took care of my babies and only later did I discover Miss Nicee, as the kids call her, is a baker on the side. Her pound cakes are nothing like Sara Lee’s from the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. Her pound cakes are buttery smooth and just the right amount of sweet. Caramel cake, soul food, is on my list of cakes to try – all of that caramel soaking into that cake, deliciousness on a plate.

My friend recently had a baby who is about to turn 100-days old. To mark the occasion they’ll be eating and making Baekseolgi-tteok 백설기떡, a white steamed cake. According to my friend, it is a delicious treat, but very cumbersome to make since it needs to be steamed. The tradition is the more people who share in the cake eating the longer life the baby will have. I want her baby to have a long life so I volunteer to eat a bite or two.

Not Sweet, but still Cakes


Okonomiyaki — so delicious. Photo copyright Erin Okuno

At another time we’ll have to explore pancake culture. For years I’d dutifully eat an American style Bisquick made pancake because someone took the time to make it and to feed me. Pancakes were never my favorite, I’d much prefer savory eggs or something sweet like a piece of leftover cake for breakfast. A few years ago, I read a Seattle Times article that I now can’t find, about the best pancakes in Seattle. The food writer looked at pancakes from many cultures and regions such as Chinese scallion pancakes, crepes, Dutch baby pancakes, etc. Some of my favorite pancakes are Japanese okonomiyaki, a pancake with cabbage and savory elements cooked into it, and Korean pajeon.

The not sweet part of sweets is looking at how colonization, and sugar, in particular, have shaped our world views. I won’t go into detail on this since this is a more celebratory blog post thanking many of you for supporting the blog, but in researching the topic I had to stop and consider how sugar has shaped our BIPOC communities. For Japanese in Hawaii, including my family, my ancestors most likely immigrated from Japan to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane or pineapple fields. The poverty and economics of working the fields were hard. Many Africans were stolen from their motherland and enslaved on sugar fields. Gabe, who is Native American, reminded me of the legacy of how the US government provided commodities and food that wasn’t indigenous thus changing food culture for many Indigenous people. Recently I heard from a food justice organizer about how berry pickers in Washington organized and went on strike over poor working conditions in the strawberry fields. Food justice is integral to being a whole and just society.


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