When you think of traditional Japanese food, you’re likely to think of udon noodles, thick slices of sashimi, crispy tempura and salty miso soup. A sweet, honey flavoured cake isn’t exactly what springs to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine, yet Castella cake is just as much part of Japan’s culinary history as a plate of okonomiyaki or a nori-wrapped onigiri. So what exactly is Castella cake and how did it come to be a part of Japanese history?
The name ‘Castella Cake’, or ‘Kasutera’ (カステラ), doesn’t exactly sound Japanese. That’s because the name comes from the Portuguese phrase “Pão de Castela” which means “bread from Castille” (an old kingdom that belonged to Spain). Portuguese merchants came to Japan in the 16th century and brought the cake with them. On first appearance, it reminded me of Madeira cake – another type of light, firm cake that comes from Portugal.
The Portuguese had come to Japan for trade and missionary work. At that time, Nagasaki was the only port in Japan open to foreign trade which is why the cake is now associated with that city. As well as the famous cake, the Portuguese also introduced pumpkins, guns and tobacco to the Japanese.
The cake was very popular but also expensive to buy because of the cost of sugar and so was considered quite a luxury item. It was popular with sailors as it could be kept for long periods of time before going off – a useful feature for when they were spending a long time out at sea.
Castella Cake is made of four simple ingredients – flour (usually bread flour), sugar, eggs and honey. These days you can get different flavours of Castella Cake such as chocolate or green tea. Castella Cake is available to buy in cafes around Nagasaki. One such cafe (the interior of which looks a lot like a traditional English tea room) was located at the exit of the Glover Museum in Nagaski, where you could buy a slice of Castella cake (plain or chocolate) with a filling of vanilla ice-cream in the middle, like a sandwich.
When in Nagasaki, there is no shortage of souvenir shops where you can purchase gift boxes of Castella Cake to take home. It’s possible to buy single slices of the cake or box sets with individually wrapped pieces, but the Castella Cake is traditionally sold in a long bar of about 27cm long, from which you cut slices as you like. The cake is usually a pale yellow colour with a thin brown layer on the bottom (to which the wax paper is stuck so be careful to peel this off before eating) and a thicker layer of soft, brown cake on the top – this top later is very soft and easily sticks to things so if you have a long bar, I recommend keeping it in a large Tupperware where the top of the cake won’t be touching any paper that it will get stuck to.
Castella Cake is one of those things that the Japanese inexplicably go crazy for and then when you try it, you think…really? I mean, Castella cake is nice and everything, but it’s not the best cake in the world and it seems really funny that so many people in Japan get so excited about it. At the same time, it’s certainly a nice thing to try when you’re in Nagasaki, and you can even get plain and chocolate versions in your local Aeon Supermarket. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, try making it yourself! Here is a link to the Just One Cookbook recipe of Castella Cake.
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