noshtalgia Food

A relic, a misnomer and sheer poetry

Getty images

Getty images  

The Jap cake is a colonial relic, but if you are a person in the ‘know,’ you will spot this creamy confection in the most obscure corners of a bakery

A little girl, her face pressed against the glass showcase, looked longingly at the tray of pastries dolled up in two-layered gowns, encrusted with crushed cashew nuts, and topped with a chocolate brown button at its centre. In her hungry gaze they seemed to twinkle back at her in the dim interiors of King Star, the confectionery at Charring Cross in Ooty.

The girl — part of a group of boarders from a school further up in the Nilgiri hills, out on a day trip with a ₹1 handout — was me. My grubby hands had held, not five minutes before, a softie ice-cream bought from Kurinji’s on the opposite side of the road after an endless queue. But can a boarder’s hunger ever be satiated?

Piece of bliss

“Sir, may I have a Jap cake please?” I asked the shopkeeper when he looked my way. I bit into this piece of bliss, cream oozing from all sides, cashew crumbs caked on my lips, between my teeth and in my hair.

That was the 20th century. Today, I have to go on a treasure hunt to find this delectable confection made of cashew nuts, egg white, and sugar. Some call it a meringue or a macaroon, others dismiss it — “Oh, it’s just two biscuits sandwiched with cream” — but to me, it remains poetry. Its glory days are over: Gen Z would rather have a dark Belgian chocolate gateau. But people in the ‘know’ can spot a Jap cake in bakeries in the narrow lanes. This time, with ₹30 in my hand, when I ask, “Sir, may I have a Jap cake please,” fellow customers often turn around and ask, “What’s a Jap cake?”

By all accounts, the Jap cake is a colonial relic. Plus, it’s a misnomer. There’s no Japanese connection and its crunchiness suggests that it’s a biscuit, not a cake. Murugan Max, a third-generation proprietor of King Star (instituted in 1942), tells me that his grandfather Thambuswami worked with an Englishman named D.R. Davis, before Independence, in Ooty. Davis, homesick for English chocolates, decided to turn entrepreneur and set up an eponymous confectionery. Thambuswami began working with him and learned the art of British confectionery, one among them being the Jap cake. When the British left, Thambuswami acquired the bakery and named it King Star.

Loyal gesture

But King Star in 2020 does not stock the Jap cake. Instead there are 40 varieties of chocolates arranged on platters in the now brightly-lit store. Murugan recalls that from 50 paise apiece, the price rose with that of cashew. “We stopped making it when my grandfather died. The cost was too high,” he says. But to loyal customers, he makes a promise, “Tell me when you come next and I will keep a tray ready.”

Excelsior Bakery in Shivajinagar, Bengaluru, has been selling Jap cakes since 1962, says Saipreeth, the proprietor’s son. He describes the Jap cake as having an outer shell of cashews with a biscuit-textured interior. It is baked at a slow steady temperature overnight and is oven-crisp by morning. And how did he acquire the recipe? “I don’t know. My great-grandfather had a partnership with an Englishwoman, and she may have handed him the recipe,” says Saipreeth. They make a batch of 70 once in three days. Excelsior started its bakery with a firewood oven, but this has been replaced with a contemporary diesel oven that cuts costs and maintains a steady temperature.

Two dozen a day

At Thomsons in Bengaluru’s Cox Town, the Jap cake rests in a forlorn corner. Renowned for his Christmas plum cakes, bakery owner Abraham Thomas gives the pastry a cursory look and says it has been around since the bakery’s inception in 1962. The recipe was passed down from one generation to the next. “We are a small place, and it is just one of the products,” says Thomas. Still, he sells two dozen a day.

A well-travelled friend swears he has tasted the best Jap cakes in Virudhunagar, Madurai, at Mahesh Bakery. Here too it sells at ₹30 apiece but the recipe is well-guarded and Mahesh says he has made a variant with pista. Next stop, Virudhunagar. I am as determined as William Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, to “persevere and find them where I may.”

courtesy: King Star

courtesy: King Star  

King Star Jap cake recipe

Ingredients

15 egg whites

500 gm crushed cashew

400 gm sugar

Method

1. Beat the egg white until it turns into a thick froth. Mix sugar and crushed cashews.

2. Oil a tray and keep ready. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Mix sugar and crushed cashew into the egg white froth.

3. Take a butter sheet and make a funnel with it. Pour the batter into the funnel sheet and make biscuit shapes. Bake for 10 minutes.

4. Take them out and wait for them to cool. Take two biscuits and sandwich it with fresh icing.

5. Roll the sides with cream and cake crumbs. Dot the centre with chocolate icing.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:16:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/a-relic-a-misnomer-and-sheer-poetry/article31110359.ece

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