My brother paid us a visit yesterday and handed the box shown above to our mother: a present from friends who were in Hong Kong recently and bought a number of gifts from Wing Wah, a popular HK pastry shop specializing in traditional Chinese sweets and selling both the traditional varieties and cakes given a modern spin.
Now, Mom isn’t really into Oriental sweets, so she called me over to the dining table to have a look at the contents of the box. What we saw in this little yellow container were…
Wife cakes – lao po bing (老婆饼) in Cantonese – appear to be a cross between cakes and cookies. They’re rather flat in appearance, but are not crisp to the bite. At the same time, they’re stodgy rather than fluffy with regard to texture.
The name stems from a romantic Chinese folktale / fable on filial piety. As related on the site Life of Guangzhou:
The origins of the Wife Cake involves the tale of a couple living in a small village in imperial China. And while they lacked material wealth, they had no shortage of love for each other. Then tragedy struck, with the outbreak of a mysterious disease causing the husband’s father to become fatally ill. The couple spent all of their money on treatment to save his life, but to no avail.
In the ultimate display of self-sacrifice, the wife sold herself as a slave in order to afford the continuing treatment of her father-in-law. Once the husband learnt about his wife’s actions, he devised a pastry filled with winter melon and coconut in order to buy her back. His cake then became so popular that not only was he able to earn enough to free her, but enough to save his dying father.
A standard-issue wife cake involves a sweet paste made with winter-melon (condol in Filipino) and flavored with either almonds or coconut. The paste is wrapped in a flaky pastry and baked till golden. Sesame seeds are sometimes sprinkled on top, but they’re usually optional. If you’re a fan of hopia baboy (a similar cake filled with a paste of sweetened winter-melon wrapped in a lard-shortened pastry), you’ll adore this.
I’m not a big fan of hopia baboy, but I actually like these. I think it’s the hint of coconut flavor that keeps the winter-melon paste from getting too sweet.
Oh, and while these cakes are lovely as is, they’re much nicer warmed in a toaster-oven for a couple of minutes and served with jasmine tea: a most pleasant little snack.