The art of Teochew coconut cakes brings joy across generations

August 16, 2022 - 08:22
Teochew coconut cake has been a delightful snack to many generations of locals in the Chinatown of District 5 by its unique flavor.

HCM CITY — Teochew coconut cake has been a delightful snack for many generations of residents in HCM City's District 5 for its unique flavour.

Teochew coconut cake was supposedly first made by the ethnic Teochew people in China, and was later introduced to Việt Nam following the immigration of the Teochew into the country centuries ago. In HCM City, it first appeared in District 5, where many ethic Hoa (Vietnamese of Chinese origin) are inhabited.

The cake is made by spreading filling between two layers of cake. But the creation of each component of the cake is an art.

To make the cake, a mixture of flour, egg, and granulated sugar is prepared, baked in cast iron moulds on top of charcoal stoves, and then set aside to cool off.

TASTY CAKES: Teochew coconut cakes are made in a cast iron mould on top of a charcoal stove. — VNS Photo Việt Dũng

In some places, the baker will add pandan leaf extract to the batter to enhance the flavour of the cake.

Chunks of coconut are placed between the two layers, along with durian, peanut butter, or cadé.

Cadé is a spread made from three main ingredients: chicken eggs, sugar, and plenty of coconut milk.

On first bite, you can feel the sponginess of the cake with the creaminess of the eggs, and the soothing aroma of pandan leaves. The coconut also lends a crunchy yet soft texture which is delightful to chew. Finally, the sweet taste of milk and coconut milk from cadé ties the whole treat together.

SOUTHERN FLAVOUR: A slice of fresh Teochew coconut cake. HCM City residents have been enjoying this sweet treat for decades. — VNS Photo Việt Dũng

Trang Vĩnh Phát has been selling Teochew coconut cake since 1980 in HCM City with his mobile cart, and this year he has opened a small shop called Tản Đà Coconut Cake in District 5.

SWEET TRADITION: Trang Vĩnh Phát, who is a Hoa ethnic (Chinese Vietnamese descent), has been making a living by selling this cake for decades. VNS Photo Việt Dũng

“In the past, the cake only had one filling which was green bean paste. But since people no longer prefer green beans, I have been making different kinds of fillings to provide more options to customers,” Phát said.

“Since the cake is handcrafted, the baker always have to carefully control the temperature of the fire, otherwise, it will be burnt,” he said.

The shop is always crowded, which makes the atmosphere here always bustling.

All the bakers here are family members, as family-run businesses are a common feature of Chinese-Vietnamese culture.

Trần Lợi, a 67-year-old man who has been selling Teochew coconut cake since 1977 in District 8, said that his family's cake recipe has been passed down only to family members. Since his health has not been as good as it used to be, he has recently passed the secret recipe on to his son.

For many HCM City adults, this cake is a part of their childhood. Some are now buying this treat for their own children to enjoy. The cake’s softness and mild sweet taste means that people of all ages can enjoy it.

Compared to other snacks, this cake has an affordable price of about VNĐ25,000 to VNĐ40,000 (US$1.70). VNS