Wobbly wonders: Vietnamese 3D jelly cakes

May 21, 2023 - 09:27
The beauty of flowers, cute animals, beautiful love stories or romantic songs have become endless inspirations for Trần Phương Nga's three-dimensional canvas of transparent jelly.
Nga's 3D jelly cake with a decorative pattern of chrysanthemums. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga

by Lương Thu Hương

Using a hypodermic needle and syringe to inject colour agents into a transparent layer of jelly, Trần Phương Nga elaborately creates intricate flowers, leaves and other decorative elements that look incredibly lifelike: a whole jelly cake doubles as an edible work of art.

The beauty of flowers, cute animals, beautiful love stories or romantic songs have become endless inspirations for Nga's three-dimensional canvas of transparent jelly. Savouring the cake is like enjoying an artwork, feasting both the eyes and taste buds.

Nga is seen in a process of creating jelly base for a cake. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga

The Hà Nội-based artisan made her first 3D jelly art cakes in 2015 to please her son, as it was one of his favourite treats. Back then, the art was trendy in Việt Nam and prevalent in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Her first understanding of the making of jelly art cakes came from online videos in which international artisans showcased their techniques. Instead of using gelatin or agar like the foreign crafters, Nga came up with her own ingredients for the dessert creations, including jelly powder, pandan leaves and dragon fruit as natural dyes, and coconut milk and fruits to create flavour.

Her first cake had a flowery pattern created with a straw instead of a hypodermic needle, and it took nearly three hours to finish. Though it was imperfect, it surprisingly received much praise from many of her Facebook friends, and encouraged her to continue to experiment with different methods. After many fails, she finally succeeded in developing her own recipe for the delicious and beautiful cakes.

According to Nga, the basic tools to make a jelly art cake include a cake mould, one or two modified injection needles and syringes. The ingredients for her creations and their colours have natural origins that are easy to find, for example, yellow from pumpkin powder, green from matcha tea, blue from butterfly pea flower, or brown from chocolate.

The making of a jelly cake includes several steps. The first is to create a jelly base, which must be transparent to craft a perfect cake. After preparing the colour agents from natural ingredients, the artisan will sculpt decorative patterns inside the base. Finally, the jelly will be poured into a cake mould and left to cool.

“All four steps are equally important. It is necessary to be meticulous and careful in each step to create a cake or a work of art that is both beautiful and delicious,” said the 42-year-old cake-lover.

Nga’s artworks are inspired by the beauty of flowers, cute animals, or sweet melodies. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga.

As Nga is a flower lover, most of her creations are inspired by flowers, like chrysanthemums, roses, sunflowers or lotuses. Before embarking on a work, instead of practising drawing, she will study the flower carefully, from its petals, leaves and branches, or simply observe it until she can feel its beauty. Some flowers can be sculpted right away, while others take years to perfect.

Besides popular themes like realistic looking flowers or animals, Nga’s artworks also feature stories inspired by memories and songs.

Each jelly art cake requires meticulousness and perseverance. The larger the cake, the more intricate it becomes. She has made many large cakes of up to 1m by 0.75m with designs of koi fish, lotus ponds, or lotus flowers, such as for the International Buddhist Festival in 2019 at Tam Chúc Pagoda.

A 3D jelly cake with a design of a koi fish made by Nga. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga

With a strong passion for edible art, she decided to quit her job of 12 years at a state organisation to wholeheartedly dedicate herself to her passion, and has never looked back.

“Since I started making 3D jelly art cakes, I have understood what passion means and the determination to let go of many things to pursue my dream. Being able to do what I love is freedom, and enjoying the work I do is happiness. I’m fortunate to have both of these things,” she said.

This passion has also enabled Nga to travel to many places, meet people of the same interest and inspire others. Many netizens have been impressed by her artistic creations and inquired about her experience, which has motivated her to launch the first online 3D jelly cake making courses in Việt Nam. The courses have been attended by not only Vietnamese but also international learners from as far as Malaysia, Germany and the US.

Nga has collaborated with various media agencies to livestream and record free instructional videos on social media. The number of her students now reaches the hundreds, and many have earned success from the culinary art.

In 2017, her first student, based in Taiwan, won second-place in the international jelly art competition in Malaysia. One year later, the Vietnamese team, under Nga’s instruction, won the first prize and many other major ones in a competition in Taiwan, while Nga herself was awarded with the title of Best Instructor. In the following years, she has been constantly invited to be a judge of some competitions held in South Korea, Malaysia and other countries.

Nga was awarded with the title 'Best Instructor'.of the international jelly art cake competition in 2018. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga

The cake crafter was even granted the title "Artisan of Culinary Culture of Vietnamese Traditional Village" in November 2020 as a recognition of her tireless dedication to the art.

Nga was granted the title 'Artisan of Culinary Culture of Vietnamese Traditional Village' in November 2020. — Photo courtesy of Trần Phương Nga

The artisan revealed that her first book about 3D jelly art cakes will be released this year, and she also hopes to launch the first international competition for the art in Việt Nam soon. VNS