Special tea leaf cake leaves dessert lovers wanting more
Written by Chen Ziqi; narrated by Ken Smith
China has a long history of tea culture, which dates from Shennong, one of the Three Sovereigns in Chinese mythology, who was credited with being the first to discover the medical function of tea. In today's modern society, while enjoying the fragrance, tea consumers often choose delicate teacakes to accompany their drink.
[Photo: from VCG]
Gradually, many regions have developed their own brand of teacake to represent their profound food culture and history. One young lad from Zhejiang province has been making his own contribution towards revitalizing a traditional teacake from his region and promoting it nationwide.
Changxing is a county of the prefecture-level city of Huzhou, in the north of Zhejiang province. [Photo: from IC]
When you mention Changxing County in northern Zhejiang province, many people's taste buds immediately awake, and their memory freezes at the moment that they first tasted an unforgettable specialty food from the region—the Zisun teacake. It's a delicious accompaniment for tea.
This bakery is famous for its fillings, which perfectly mix the flavor of sweetness from dried vegetables, the bitterness and astringency from Zisun tea leaves and the minced pork. Tea leaves make lard oil less greasy and the dry vegetables complement the bitter flavor of the tea leaves. This perfect combination has won a lot of affection from tourists across the country.
The story of Fan Li and Xi Shi was performed in Chinese traditional opera. [Photo: from IC]
The Zisun teacake can be traced back to the Warring State Period in 494 BC, and there is an interesting folk tale about its origins.
Fan Li was the General of the Kingdom of Yue. After he lent his support to Gou Jian, the King of Yue, and won the battle against the Kingdom of Wu, Fan Li took his lady Xi Shi back to Changxing region and settled down to family life.
Unfortunately, Fan Li suffered from an eye disease. Xi Shi decided to relieve his pain by adopting dietary therapy. After going through a lot of medical documents and with the help of a doctor, she created a cake that was made of a special recipe—Zisun tea.
Zisun Tea [Photo: screenshot from CCTV]
The cake was then named after this recipe and has been passed down through generations along with its anecdote. Today, people often eat it when they drink tea.
Lin Ruiyang is a famed supplier of Zisun teacake. His family has over 50-year history of making traditional teacake. 37-year old Lin is a member of the youngest generation of the family and has been involved in the Zisun teacake making industry for the past five years.
To date, with the support of the tourist industry and modern technology, Lin is promoting this local teacake to the rest of the country and has so far achieved excellent results.
In 2013, Lin came back to his hometown and noticed that the tourist industry was thriving, so he opened a hotel in Guzhu village. He says his start-up business inspired him to discover a specialty food that represents his region.
"My business was very successful, and I received plenty of tourists each day. At the time, I was thinking what a pity that we didn't have a specialty food that reminded people of our region. So I started working on finding a specialty food that could be an impressive icon for our place," according to Lin Ruiyang.
Lin did a lot of research and visited many villages in Changxing in quest of a distinctive flavor. When he discovered that bakeries were always very popular in many tourist resorts, he was excited because he knew his grandfather was good at making such a bakery.
"After thorough investigation, I suddenly remembered my granddad can make a well-known snack from my region—Zisun teacake. So I tried it agian, I was thrilled at the first bite and could barely keep calm. I had a strong desire to launch a food product based on this flavor, because I believed it would represent our region and our culture."
To achieve his ambition, Lin Ruiyang took the brave step of giving up his major in college—electronic engineering, and started to learn something completely different from his grandfather. Lin says they adopted the traditional way of making the cake, with some small adjustments to meet consumers' preferences.
"My granddad used to mix flowers with water flavored with Zisun tea. His fillings didn't have any tea leaves, but now I put a few in the fillings, and it makes a difference."
Another secret behind making a mouth-watering Zisun teacake is the water used for kneading the dough. Lin carefully grinds the tea leaves into tiny pieces and soaks them in cold water over night. The next day, tea leaves are mixed into the fillings and the water is used for kneading the mixture.
Lin puts one tray of raw Zisun teacakes into the oven and sets temperature at 65 degree Celsius. After 30 minutes, the smell of fresh baking draws tourists in. They were eager to taste one.
"My first impression is the flavor of Zisun tea. It is very strong. The outer layer of this cake is crusty with a soft interior. It is quite unique, and I like it."
Lin Ruiyang understands that his individual strength couldn't possibly achieve his target, so he has established close ties with other owners of hotels. Lin has displays at their premises exclusively to sell his teacakes. They earn 30% of the profits from the sales.
To make the Zisun teacake popular nationwide and enable more buyers to get access to it, Lin Ruiyang has set up a company and brand identity. The sales have considerably increased since then.
To provide fresh cakes to customers across the nation, Lin's company has a strict rule about the amount of daily production, according to online orders and the number of tourists.
"For example, if today we have 30,000 tourists coming to our region, we only make enough cakes for them. We make sure all the teacakes can be sold within a week," Lin Ruiyang says.
Lin's success has been wide spread in Zhejiang province. Many operators of hotels in the region have learned from Lin. Wu Xiaohong is one of them.
"I have been running a hotel in Anji for about four years. I was finding it difficult to expand my business, as tourists nowadays have so many different options. My friend told me that someone used a local snack to attract tourists. I thought this was a brilliant idea. So I met Lin and learned a lot from him. I also read many ancient books to see if any special products from my region had been mentioned in history."
Lin Ruiyang will continue promoting this local specialty food even further, and it's likely that his vision will inspire other people with similar interests to revive traditions and create their own legend.