Old-Time Taiwanese Snacks —Exploring Tastes from the Past

Lao is a homophone for “old age” and symbolizes longevity. When these rice puffs are used as offerings to the Jade Emperor on his birthday, people say: “Make an offering of malao [sesame rice puffs] and you will eat your way to old age.” (photo by Jimmy L)

Thanks to globalization, there is a dazzling array of snack foods and sweets available to people today, and they come from all over the world. But are you curious about what snack foods and sweets were like in less prosperous days gone by? What did they taste like? And how did they evolve?

A baker tests the consistency of simmering malt sugar. Preparing the syrup is the most important step in making lao pastries. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

We often hear the words gao and bing, both referring to cakes or pastry. The difference, if you look carefully, is that bing are made with wheat flour and gao with rice. Other types of Taiwanese sweets include su (shortcake or flaky pastry), lao (a traditional Fujianese or Taiwanese snack sometimes called a “rice puff”), and yi (meaning “candy”).

A baker tests the consistency of simmering malt sugar. Preparing the syrup is the most important step in making lao pastries. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Chen Yu-chen, a scholar of Taiwanese dietary ­culture, notes in an article entitled “Han Pastry, Taiwanese Snacks, and Bread: Formation of Bakery Industry and Transformation of Consumption Culture in Japanese Colonial Taiwan” that the origins of Taiwanese pastries and sweets were closely connected to traditional worship and wedding ceremonies, making them “non-everyday” ritual foods. From the era of Japanese rule (1895–1945) onward the bakery industry took shape, forcing Taiwanese-style pastry shops to undergo a transformation that in turn influenced the life experiences of consumers. There was a shift in the cultural symbolism of pastries as they increasingly became a part of daily life, leisure, and recreation, making snacks more accessible to ordinary people.

Working alone, a master baker dips lao pastries in maltose syrup, then rolls them in puffed rice. Using both hands, he really looks like a man who has mastered his craft. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Working alone, a master baker dips lao pastries in maltose syrup, then rolls them in puffed rice. Using both hands, he really looks like a man who has mastered his craft. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

A symbol of longevity: Lao

Lao (sometimes translated as “rice puff”) is a Taiwanese sweet snack that dates far back in history. It is mentioned in the Qianjin Pu (Tshian-kim-phóo), a children’s instructional reader written sometime between 1842 and 1852. It is also an indispensable offering for worshiping the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven) on his birthday on the ninth day of the lunar new year.

The century-old Len Jen Bakery has been kept running by successive generations of the founding family. The photo shows Cheng Yida, of the third generation, and his nephew Chen Chia-hsu, representing the fourth.

Because lao (粩) is a homophone for lao (老) meaning “old age,” it is considered symbolic of long life. Old people say: “Make offerings of malao [sesame rice puff] and you will eat your way to old age.” Lao are also frequently given as gifts at weddings or when newlyweds visit the brides’ parents for the first time after their wedding, and symbolize “growing old together.”

Wu Canzhong, fifth-generation successor to the Hsinchu-­based Hsin Fu Jean bakery chain, founded in 1898, explains that the main ingredient in lao is a “dry cake” made from glutinous rice and the ‘Kou-Ti-Yu’ (goutiyu) variety of taro. The dry cake is first formed into a sausage shape and deep-fried in oil until the center is fluffy and almost hollow, after which it is dipped in maltose syrup. Finally, the pastry is rolled in one of various flavoring ingredients to cover the outside: if sesame seeds are used, it is called malao; if puffed rice is used, it is called milao; and if crushed peanuts are used, it is called huasheng lao.

The main ingredients in gao (rice-based cake or pastry) are glutinous rice flour and sugar. The sugar causes the flour to stick together and hold a fixed shape.

While the maltose syrup simmering in a large pot is still light in color, the old master baker who is tending the pot gets up and scoops out some of the syrup using a large wooden paddle. He lets it drip into a bowl of water that he holds in his other hand, and puts his now-free first hand into the water to feel how hard or soft the maltose is. He says: “It’s not ready yet. The syrup has to be simmered for at least an hour and a half.”

“Preparing the syrup is the most important step in making lao. It’s up to the bakers to control the temperature and cooking time,” says Wu Canzhong. The key to the snack’s palatability is the thickness of the syrup coating. When one bites into it, it should have a combination of crispy and sticky textures, giving a unique and interesting mouthfeel.

The shelves at Len Jen Bakery display all kinds of pastries essential for celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Symbolic and filling: Gao

The Len Jen Bakery is a long-established shop located in the old streets around Keelung’s Dianji Temple. When we sit down to talk about gao (generally translated as “cakes” or “pastries”), also called gaozai or ko-á, third-generation proprietor Cheng Yida tells us: “In the past, gao were somewhat more common. Large bing cakes were used for rituals and weddings, whereas gaozai were snacks that could be sold at any time of year. Also the materials for gaozai were more easily available, and they are not difficult to make.”

The shelves at Len Jen Bakery display all kinds of pastries essential for celebrating the Lunar New Year.

As we enter the Len Jen bakery, we see master bakers making sufanggao (cuboid pastries made in various flavors). “Most of our products are still made by hand,” says Chen Chia-hsu, a member of the fourth generation at the company. The ingredients in gaozai include pan-fried glutinous rice flour along with sugar and fillings. First the rice flour is sifted and mixed thoroughly with the sugar. Sufanggao have three layers, so the ingredients are separated into three containers. The bakers first spread the bottom layer into a rectangular mold and then use a utensil to spread it evenly. “The baker’s skill at spreading the layer is critical: it has to be very even and level. We’ve tried using machines for this step, but they apply too much force, so the cake becomes too dense and the mouthfeel is off, lacking the desired crumbly texture.” The second and third layers are then spread on top, and the gao are set aside in a humid room for over ten hours. “The purpose of leaving the pastries to stand is to let them absorb moisture, which enables the sugar to play its role properly.”

“When making gao the most important thing is the sugar. We still use fermented sugar. We grind the sugar into a powder, add yeast and ferment it to make it sticky, because then the sugar holds the flour mixture together,” explains Cheng Yida. The sugar not only adds sweetness, it has the role of fixing the shape. However, for the gao­zai­run cakes made for Ghost Festival, the cakes are also steamed to give them a softer texture.

Yu Jen Jai offers do-it-yourself classes in hopes of educating more people about fengyangao culture. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Ghost Festival is an important holiday in Keelung, and gaozai are an important medium through which to communicate with the “good brothers” (hungry ghosts) who wander around at that time. It is customary to make “cake towers” which symbolize “rising step by step.” It is said that the taller the towers are, the easier they are for distant ghosts to see. Moreover, as Chen Chia-hsu explains, “In the past when ships put to sea out of Keelung, they would carry gaozai cakes as rations because they kept longer than other foods and were also filling.”

We are curious about what bakeries were like in days gone by. Cheng Yida tells us that traditional bakeries made products required for religious ceremonies according to the time of year, so demand was very seasonal. Some bakers took other jobs and only came back to their employers’ shops for Ghost Festival. “In earlier times there was no flexibility in the timing of production and it all depended on everyone pitching in.” But these days things are different. “Today businesses are run as companies, the work is scheduled according to the processes involved, and shift rosters are all arranged a month in advance.” From Cheng’s description we can see how operations at long-­established bakeries have gradually trended away from being closely tied to traditional festivals to greater routine. 

The historic town of Lukang is the hometown of fengyangao, which translates literally as “phoenix eye cake.” (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Elegant pastry of the gentry: Fengyangao

Fengyangao (literally “phoenix eye cake”) is made to be eaten daintily, not to fill people’s stomachs. The small pastries are eaten for ambience and were very popular among the gentry in the old days. The Huang family opened a small shop in Lukang, Changhua County, in 1877. They named it after the family’s library (shuzhai), which is where the name of the bakery chain Yu Jen Jai comes from (jai being another spelling of zhai).

Fengyangao are made with top-quality rice (which is first cooked and then ground into flour) along with fermented white sugar. In the past the sugar was buried in the ground for several months, but today modern fermentation equipment is used. Huang Ching Ching, the sixth-generation proprietor of Yu Jen Jai, says: “It is only with fermentation that the fragrance emerges. The fermentation temperature and time are both very ­important.”

The Huang family’s ancestors came from Quanzhou in China’s Fujian Province, and made their fortune selling household staples such as rice and cloth. The heads of the family were great lovers of poetry and often invited several friends into the family library to recite verses, and the hosts would serve fengyangao made in accordance with family traditions as tea snacks. Huang Ching Ching relates: “In those days there was customized service.” A cook would bring out the rice flour and sugar and ask each of the gentry visitors their preferred level of sweetness, and then make the fengyangao right there at the table.

Huang gives us a demonstration of how to make fengyangao. First she takes equal parts of cooked rice flour and sugar, mixes them together thoroughly, and sifts the mixture through a sieve. Then she kneads the mixture with her fingers, pushes it into a wooden mold, compresses it with her fingers to make it firmer, and finally removes it from the mold.

As Huang describes the experience of eating each little fengyangao, at first there is a light and refreshing sweetness, then a heavier sweetness kicks in, and finally you end up with a fragrant rice taste. This experience tells you all you need to know about the flavor of Taiwan’s precious local ingredients and is a microcosm of Lukang’s history.

Fengyangao are elegant pastries much favored by the gentry in days gone by. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Old-fashioned Taiwanese candy: Xingang yi

Located next to Fengtian Temple in Chiayi’s Xingang Township is the 133-year-old Ching Chang Li store, which specializes in making old-fashioned Taiwanese candy.

The shop’s fourth-generation owner, Lu Yang Hsiu-mei, mentions that Ching Chang Li’s founder, Lu Qitou, was from Chiayi’s Minxiong Township, and in days gone by he was a small vendor selling malt sugar, peanuts, and cubing (“thick pastries” made with only flour and sugar). Once when he was stuck inside for several days by incessant rain, he looked at the ingredients around him and got an inspiration: He took peanuts dampened by the wet weather, simmered them in malt sugar and shaped the mixture into small pieces with little heads and pointy tails that looked like mice, so he called his new treat “mouse candy.” “The name was novel and intriguing, and people who came to the temple to worship would buy sweets as offerings and as gift items.” Lu earned enough to set down roots in Xingang.

Xingang candy (Xingang yi, pronounced Shinko ame in Japanese), is a Taiwanese sweet with an old-fashioned feel.

Mouse candy proved popular, but its name lacked elegance, so it was first changed to shuangrenrun, with the name coming from the two nuts (shuang ren) inside a peanut shell. Later some of this snack was given to the Emperor of Japan as a gift and was much appreciated, and it got another name: Xingang yi (yi meaning “candy”).

The owner leads us into the back of her shop, to the place where they make Xingang yi. They make a wheat-flour batter the evening before and let it stand overnight, and they use peanuts grown in nearby Yunlin County which are plump and full-bodied.

They start cooking the peanuts in the malt sugar at 6 a.m., then blend in the batter and simmer the mixture for more than an hour. Lu Yang Hsiu-mei is in control, and she uses a strip of bamboo to pick up a little malt sugar and kneads it with her fingers to test the firmness. This is a technique she learned from her mother-in-law, and she expects her son to take over from her in the future.

After simmering maltose syrup with peanuts, bakers dust the dough with rice flour and form it into long strips.

The candy is a part of the memories of many Xingang natives who have moved away. Inside the shop there are three elderly women from neighboring Bantou Village. One says: “I’ve been eating this candy ever since I could walk.” She has three sisters who are scattered all over Taiwan, but when they come home for Lunar New Year they always come to this place where these taste memories began and buy a few bags to take away with them.

“It has the aroma of rice flour and peanuts along with the sweetness of malt sugar, and it has a unique chewy texture—that’s Xingang candy.” This old-fashioned and simple taste also represents something else: perseverance in carrying on a tradition.