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15 February 2023, 10:14

Culture as sweet as sugar


BEIJING, 15 February (BelTA - China Daily). - Traditional myths provide inspiration for culinary delights as cakes take on a legendary status, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

At traditional Chinese markets, tangren (sugar people) are a popular draw, as they make for an entertaining treat for children and adults alike.

Name practically any animal or famous fictional character and, with great ease, the folk artisans will mold maltose syrup into a figure that can be easily held and eaten off a stick.

With deft handiwork, vendors seem to bring the molten bronze liquid to life, as they shape it into a mouthwatering piece of art.

In the past five years, however, patissier Zhou Yi has been taking the concept to the next level, combining fondant cake-making skills with Chinese dough-sculpting techniques to create elaborate edible figurines of the country's historical or mythical characters.

One of his latest creations — combining the likeness of a flying apsara (a fairy, or feitian in Chinese) with a mythological beast that is half fish and half bird, from the ancient text Classic of Mountains and Seas, and whose appearance bodes well for a good harvest — took him four months to complete.

The cake presents a scene found in a mural at Gansu province's Mogao Caves, where the flying apsara is shown to be playing pipa (a Chinese plucked string instrument) in an unusual reversed posture, with the instrument raised high in the air at the back of her head.

Apart from fondant, Zhou also used the traditional pulled sugar technique in parts of the work, such as the pipa, to give the instrument a translucent effect that matches the ethereal quality of the goddess.

"I don't think cakes are just for eating. They are also a medium that is able to carry many creative ideas. The cultural heritage of Chinese civilization over the millennia can take on new and vibrant forms on a small piece of cake," Zhou says.

The 40-year-old learned Chinese cooking techniques at the Sichuan Tourism University in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

There he got to know about the country's food history and culture, in particular the techniques used in folk cuisine, as well as mastering food science, which allows him to develop new recipes.

Wishing to master an area of expertise in order to support himself after graduation, he chose to focus on the folk skill of dough sculpture — the making of vivid three-dimensional models of plants, animals and human figures using dough as a raw material.

As pictures of his figurines attracted followers online, a client commissioned him to make a figurine of her favorite character, but requested that it be made using fondant, a material he had never worked with before.

With an innate curiosity for anything related to food science, Zhou started researching the features of fondant, as well as its history, and found it peculiar that there were no original Chinese designs or cultural elements in fondant cakes.

"I felt that although fondant is a Western technique, sugar is something that is enjoyed by people of all nationalities. Since I was considerably skilled in dough sculpting, I thought I could also make fondant cakes that present Chinese culture," Zhou says.

In 2017, he took his fondant team to Cake International, an annual cake show and competition that is held in the United Kingdom, and won three gold awards and two bronze awards.

His own fondant creation, a piece depicting Wu Zetian, an empress from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), won a gold award and was named the "international best in show".

"I was doing fairly well in China, but I didn't know much about the international scene. I really just hoped to learn something from other patissiers," Zhou says.

Despite the casual tone with which he recalls the experience, he faced a grueling schedule when preparing for the competition.

Aside from making his two entries within seven days, he also had to supervise the work of his other team members.

Grabbing only a few hours of sleep each night was the norm.

He tells one anecdote about his entry that portrayed a girl dressed in hanfu (a traditional style of Chinese attire), leaning on a piece of rock in a lake. For the piece, he used pulled sugar to portray the water, which was too thick to cut through, disqualifying it from the category it was initially submitted to.

However, the judges thought the cake was a wonderful piece and made an exception, transferring the entry to the "decorative exhibit" category, where it won Zhou a bronze.

Zhou and his team returned to Cake International in 2019, breaking their previous record and claiming a total of four gold awards.

Over the years, he has continued to hone his fondant-shaping skills while tapping Chinese cultural elements for inspiration, creating works ranging from fondant replicas of archaeological artifacts to elaborate scenes that depict cultural traditions.

His most popular works, though, are the detailed and exquisite portraiture of fictional characters that allow him to exert his imagination and creativity.

"I am fascinated by traditional Chinese culture, such as hanfu, ornaments, artifacts and stories. We have so many original characters and stories, but not enough people to elaborate on these characters to make them vivid and memorable," Zhou says.

"This is a passion of mine and something I'll keep working on, with the hope of introducing these Chinese cultural elements to more people through aesthetically pleasing works."

He recently collaborated with MGM China Holdings Ltd on presenting an exhibition at MGM Cotai resort in Macao, for which he created five fondant sculptures over 2 meters tall that highlight the culture of South China, or Lingnan, such as lion dancing and morning tea.

" (This exhibition) rejuvenates Chinese traditional culture by presenting traditional festivity, etiquette and livelihood in a contemporary manner and infusing the influence of guochao (a Chinese consumer trend that modernizes traditional culture), to merge art with life," says Pansy Ho, co-chairperson and executive director of MGM China Holdings Ltd.

Zhou continues to refine his skills and perfect his recipes, producing fondant cakes that are both exquisite and appetizing.

When looking back at the works he produced several years ago, even the award-winning ones, he feels like he has made progress in terms of his skill and representation of Chinese culture.

"Innovation is a process of constantly learning. I plan to keep a close eye on Chinese history and culture, and also to exchange with the cultures of other countries and regions, so as to present Chinese traditional culture in the most innovative ways I can," Zhou adds.

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