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In search of the 'old Shanghai sweetness'

IT'S no secret that Shanghainese have a fondness for sweet food. And when it comes to desserts, there are many who still love the Shanghai cream cakes and other pastries from the 1930s, writes Gao Ceng.

For some sweet tooths change is bad. They like what they like and they'll do what's needed to get their sweet fix. Zhou Bingkun is one of these sweet teeth.

The 62-year-old's home near Wukang Road is close to many modern bakeries and luxury hotels, where exquisite desserts and pastries from famous European and Japanese pastry chefs attract many customers.

But not Zhou.

He walks 4 kilometers from his home to an 80-year-old cake shop to buy two pieces of fresh cream cake for 10 yuan (US$1.58). The cakes are made by Shanghai pastry chefs.

"It's not that I can't afford the expensive cakes, I just have a passion for the old Shanghai sweetness," Zhou says.

The so-called "old Shanghai sweetness" refers to desserts made in old-fashioned Shanghai bakeries, which generally opened in the 1930s and used recipes at least 50 years old. Most of them were privately owned before 1949 but are now state-owned.

Many locals, like Zhou, still love these Western-style pastries that have a Shanghai twist.

Old school pastry

The Shanghai pastry style is generally described as old fashioned and they tend to be very sweet with a milky fragrance. They can even be put in the fusion category due to the city's unique history.

Starting in the 1920s, many Europeans came to Shanghai and they mainly lived in the former French concession. Some French people opened the first batch of cafes, bakeries and Western restaurants on or near Xiafei Road (or Avenue Joffre, today's Huaihai Road). Shanghai pastry chefs picked up a solid foundation in French pastries, which has obviously influenced some of the famous Shanghai desserts.

Old Shanghai bakeries are known for their colorful cakes. Some famous "Shanghai desserts," like hudiesu (palmier), hadou (chocolate éclair), qiancengsu (mille feuille) are actually classic French recipes.

Also in the 1930s and 1940s, many Russians settled in Shanghai. They opened some Russian restaurants and food stores in the city. This explains why some other Shanghai desserts such as almond cake and butter biscuits have a simple, even rough presentation and heavy sweetness.

"Russian cafes were much cheaper than the French ones," says Chen Jinjun, a local in his 80s. "I often went to the Russian cafes for chocolates and cream cakes when I was young. I remember that the menu was written in Russian."

Chen says he still goes to Harbin Food Factory on Huaihai Road because it features Russian desserts and almond cake.

Shanghai cream cake

Zhou's favorite cream cake is representative of Shanghai's old pastries. It's also one of the most famous desserts in China.

The cake is usually topped with thick whipped cream and seasonal fruit.

"The cream is smooth and silky, tastes fresh, pure and milky, not like the cake at modern bakeries that are filled with spices," Zhou says.

The fresh and pure flavor comes from milk, the main ingredient, says Shen Jialu, a famous Shanghai-based food writer who once worked in the pastry kitchen of Lao Da Chang, a bakery formerly on Huaihai Road that was opened by a French native in the 1920s.

"A large amount of fresh milk together with syrup are stirred in a low-speed mixer until it's light and fluffy, which gives the cream a delicate texture and milky sweetness," Shen says.

Old Shanghainese are known for their sweet tooth and open attitude toward other cultures. And they still have great passion for cream cakes.

Zhou still remembers that around 1960, one cream cake cost 1.5 yuan (equivalent to 150 yuan today), which meant most people could not afford it.

During the 1980s, Shanghai pastry chefs tried to replace the expensive milk with margarine and egg white to serve the middle-end market. The cream texture is harder and the flavor is lighter.

Most Shanghainese still insist on calling these milk-free cakes fresh cream cakes because they do not want to lose face.

For a taste of "old Shanghai sweetness," try the following spots.

Park Hotel Bakery

Park Hotel was built in 1932 and is known for its bakery.

Generally, people need to queue for at least 20 minutes to buy their signature dessert hudiesu (literally means butterfly crackers because of the shape).

It's actually palmier, a kind of puff pastry that originated in France and is coated with sugar featuring alternate layers of dough and butter.

The dessert has survived more than 80 years with an untouched recipe created by the hotel's first pastry chef, a French native. The recipe has now been listed as Shanghai's intangible culture heritage.

It has a crispy and crumbly outside that tastes sweet. Inside it's flaky with a nice buttery flavor.

Besides the original hudiesu, they also offer a cheese-flavor variation with the same texture but a more milky flavor.

Drunk cake is another signature dessert at the bakery. The cake is based on the classic French dessert mille-feuille, three layers of puff pastry alternating with two layers of cream and icing on the top. Shanghai pastry chefs changed it slightly by adding some rum. The rum adds moisture and gives it a well-balanced sweetness and fruity fragrance.

Address: 28 Huanghe Rd

Tel: 6327-5225


Opened in 1929, it was the first bakery shop in the former French concession owned and managed by Chinese.

The owner named the shop "Kaisiling" (literally means triumphant commander) to celebrate the winning of a northern expedition, a military campaign led by Kuomintang at that time. Hence, there desserts are believed to have the "sweet taste of success."

During the 1930s, it competed with bakeries run by Westerners and its Chinese pastry chef tried to improve the cake recipe, adding some corn flour. The resulting cake was smoother and soft like a sponge. It soon become popular in the city. People today still love that cake recipe.

Their popular desserts include hadou (éclair), tossed cream and chestnut cake. Hadou is a pastry in an oblong shape with chocolate-flavor icing and a custard-cream filling. The custard-cream filling is lighter than normal cream and balances the chocolate icing, which sometimes a little too sweet.

Tossed cream is a sweetened whipped cream made from milk and placed in a paper cup. It has a feather-like texture, sweet flavor and intense milky fragrance.

Chestnut cake is thick mashed chestnut topped with fresh cream. It features a smooth and silky texture, nice sweetness and rich nutty flavor.

Eileen Chang, one of the greatest Chinese writers known for her portrayal of life in 1940s Shanghai, praised chestnut cake in her novels more than once.

Address: 1001 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 6267-5692

Deda Western Food Restaurant

The restaurant opened in 1897 and was known for its fillet steak and various desserts.

It's a place where many Shanghainese first tried Western cuisine.

Some of the boutique tableware used at the beginning of the last century are displayed on its second floor together with nostalgic Shanghai jazz and swing music popular in the 1930s.

Many old couples, some are over 70, still come here in the afternoon, order their favorite cream cake, the restaurant's signature dessert, and a cup of coffee and share their love stories, just as they did 50 years ago.

The cream cake here has an egg-yolk like fragrance, tastes soft and dry and the whipped cream on top is smooth with moderate sweetness.

Margarine cone is a cone-shaped sweet crust pastry with a whipped margarine filling featuring a buttery taste.

Address: 473 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 6321-3810

Red House Restaurant

The restaurant was established in 1935 by a foreign couple living in Shanghai, a French woman skilled at cooking and a Jewish man responsible for operating the eatery.

After 1949, the restaurant became state-owned. Some of the original recipes have been maintained but others have been altered to cater to locals.

Their Italian ice cake is representative of a Western dessert in Shanghai style. The ice cake, spread with a little brandy, looks like ice cream but the texture is rough and a little granular and the flavor is much lighter with a nutty fragrance.

The butter used in making the ice cream is replaced by a light cream to cater to locals who don't like the buttery, greasy flavor.

Address: 845 Huaihai Rd M.

Tel: 6437-4902

Ruby Bakery

Ruby's signature naiyouxiaofang is probably one of the best cream cakes in Shanghai.

It looks quite simple, a sponge cake covered with white whipped cream, topped with a silver of maraschino cherry. But the taste is rich. The sponge cake has a soft texture and is moderately moist. The whipped cream is smooth and silky, but not greasy and has a pleasant sweetness and milky fragrance. First taste the cream to experience its pure flavor and then taste the cream and cake together to enjoy the different textures.

Before customers leave the bakery, Shanghainese shop assistants always tell them how to store the cakes and at what temperature to serve them in different seasons.

Address: 375 Huashan Rd

Tel: 6248-9212

Harbin Food Factory

The food store, founded in 1936 by Yang Guanlin, once followed the Russian pastry style from Vladivostok for many years. Yang focused on ingredients, preferring fresh milk and high-quality flour as main ingredients while rum and vanilla powder were also used.

His formula and recipes are nearly untouched. The selling way is quite old as the food is sold by weight.

The best selling dessert is xinrenpai. It's a kind of almond caramel brittle shortbread that is crunchy, buttery and sweet.

Zhimapai is a shortbread covered with dried sesame paste. It has a nutty flavor and is worth a try.

They also make liqueur-filled chocolates.

Address: 613 Huaihai Rd M.

Tel: 5383-2451


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