How did a Typhoon nearly 500 years ago change history? What do Portuguese mariners have to do with my wife’s love of baking? And just how did a cake from the other side of the world help to transform the fortunes of a sleepy fishing village in Japan?
A Twist of Fate and a Slice of Cake
In 1543, two or three Portuguese mariners washed up in Japan. On Tanegashima island, to be precise, off the southwest tip of Kyushu. They were aboard a Chinese Junk on their way to Ning Po when their ship was blown off course by a powerful typhoon. Looking around their junked junk, desperate for something to trade, all they had were matchlock guns and some castella cakes. The Japanese liked both.
These nanban-jin, or southern barbarians, could stay.
Rise of Nagasaki
In 1571, Nagasaki was given to the Portuguese as a point of entry into Japan. They could stay, they could trade, and they could develop relations. They did all those things and more.
They transformed Nagasaki from a small fishing village into a powerhouse centre of trade and religion with gold, silk, tin and Christianity.
But Nagasaki became the centre of something else too, and in true Japanese tradition – it still is.
Rise of Kasutera
As the Portuguese developed trade and converted people to Christianity, the local bakers developed castella cake.
Pronounced Kasutera in Japanese (カステラ). This foreign cake, or nanbangashi was good. It wasn’t perfect, though, and could be improved to become something truly special. To become wagashi, or a Japanese cake.
Back in Portugal Castela cake, or pão de ló (or even pão de Castela), was baked in casks, which were sealed with horse manure. So, first things first – Japanese bakers ditched the horse manure! Next, attention was turned to the eggs. There’s beating eggs, and then there’s really beating the eggs. The local bakers really beat the eggs to create a meringue second to none.
Ovens weren’t a thing in Japan at the time, and these cakes needed an oven. No problem; the locals invented an ingenious kiln called a hiki gama. A cylindrical oven in which your cake was placed. Coals were placed at the bottom and also on a lid covering the oven’s top. A fantastic thing, and used until the 1950s!
Bakers would poke at the cake mixture using bamboo sticks to keep air bubbles from forming, creating a fine luxurious texture. As cooking appliances and processes were refined, they began using a wooden frame without a bottom to ensure cakes were evenly cooked and an even rise.
They showered the cake with attention as its popularity increased. Every aspect of its creation was scrutinised in fine detail, and as with most things the Japanese do, they chased perfection.
As a result, Japanese kasutera rose to heights other sponges could only dream of; they have a delicate springy texture that is lovely to bite down into. A crisp sugar crunch on the bottom, where the sugar has settled during cooking.
Cooked at a lower temperature than usual for this style of cake and for longer, kasutera remains moist and retains that soft, smooth texture.
Once done, it’s sliced up while still hot and packaged immediately. For something with only four basic ingredients, it is genuinely amazing.
Kasutera comes in many forms now, but traditionally they are baked in large, meter-long blocks. Imposing cakes to look at, but striking with deep brown exteriors and golden interiors. Soft and airy to eat.
To me, kasutera is very much a part of the Japanese experience.Daichi
End of the Portuguese
In 1639 Japan enacted the sakoku, or closed country, a policy which forbade all Portuguese from entering the land. A Portuguese embassy returned to Japan in 1640, hoping to reopen trade and relations, but was promptly executed. Perhaps they hadn’t brought cake!
Nothing would be the same for Japan after sakoku, but the cake would become a symbol of Nagasaki, if not the country. It’s eaten at festivals and ceremonies and is ubiquitous in the cake stalls that occupy department stores. I even picked up a spectacular kasutera cake from a pop-up shop in a train station in Chiba prefecture recently.
It’s interesting how, occasionally, two things collide to create something incredible and perhaps unexpected. The Portuguese with their manure-sealed sponge cakes, and the Japanese with their relentless pursuit of delicious food and meticulous ingenuity in making it.
The first thing my wife-to-be ever made for me was kasutera. She was brought up on it, and it sowed the seeds for a love of baking that continues to this day.
She makes kasutera exceptionally well and could do so even as a child. The one she baked for me when we first met was life-affirmingly wonderful – like no sponge cake I’d ever had before. It took just one bite to know that she was the one for me and lucky for me, she is still baking me cakes!
So it was for the Japanese. Portuguese muskets may have changed the country forever, but the influence of kasutera cannot be underestimated.
The guns are long gone, and so is feudal Japan, but the cakes popularity rises on. Bringing simple joy to millions of people.
A Final Thought
Nagasaki is a wonderful place which has seen a lot of history. For obvious reasons, however, it is mostly looked at through one lens. To anyone who visits, a trip to the Atomic Bomb Museum is an important must.
But when you visit remember that there is more to this incredible place than just that. Nagasaki is home to the best kasutera in Japan and to me, kasutera is very much a part of the Japanese experience.
The story of its success, its transformation from something foreign to something quintessentially Japanese, is part of why I love Japan so much, and it’s not untypical.
So come to Nagasaki and munch kasutera. Step into one of the famed shops and celebrate the city’s history of confection perfection. You won’t be disappointed.
After all, it’s a cake that changed a city, a nation and the author’s life. And you never know – it might just change yours.