When it comes to getting married, it’s important to choose an auspicious time for such a momentous occasion. And few moments are as auspicious as Chinese New Year, which is a symbol of new beginnings. “Chinese marriages were always such a grand scene when I was a youngster,” says Cheng Tit, a baker at Pat Sin Bakery, which specialises in traditional Chinese treats – a category known as tong4 beng2 pou3 (唐餅舖) to distinguish it from Hong Kong-style or Western bakeries.
Cheng, whose name means “metal,” is mixing a mountain of flour with his robust arms. The bakery is snowed under from flour dust and orders for bridal pastries (gaa3 neoi5 beng2 嫁女餅). “Imagine, each order weighs 800 catties,” he says – 480 kilograms, which amounts to about 3,200 pastries. “During the marriage seasons, I work from 7am until early morning the next day, for 16 hours non-stop.” It’s a task this iron man has been doing for 57 years.
Chinese pastries were born in banquet-style tea restaurants. That was the case for Pat Sin, which formerly was a part of the Pat Sin Grand Teahouse, an establishment that was originally founded in 1966 in Cheung Sha Wan. “My father was a chef there,” says Cheung Zi-wing, the bakery’s second-generation owner. The restaurant closed in 1978, but Cheung’s father decided to keep its pastry department alive and relocate it to Sham Shui Po, where Pat Sin is located today. It has been making traditional Chinese pastries ever since.
Bridal pastries are some of the best sellers. Traditional Chinese marriages’ grand and complicated affairs with etiquette and protocol passed down since the Western Zhou period (1045–771 BC). Marriage is about bonding together not only the couple, but also their families and ancestors, embodied by elaborate rituals. While many of the obligations related to marriage have been simplified over the years, one that has survived is the practice of exchanging bridal pastries. These date back to the late Eastern Han Dynasty (161-223), when a warlord named Liu Bei married the widowed sister of Sun Quan, a warlord in the neighbouring state of Eastern Wu. When he arrived in Eastern Wu, Liu ordered his soldiers to give out pastries to the people to display his wealth and generosity.
That evolved into the tradition of a groom’s family handing out bridal pastries in order to win over the family of the bride. There are now eight types of bridal pastries, each with its own history and symbolism. Each bridal pastry is weighted by symbolism. The most famous of them is the wife cake (lou5 po4 beng2 老婆餅), which is soft, round and flaky, and filled with winter melon paste. It is made by freezing a batter of winter melon, oil and cake flour, folding it into lard-filled dough, then baking it until golden.
According to lore, wife cake can be traced back to the wife of a poor street hawker in Guangdong province. After he sold some of her winter melon cakes in the market, they proved a hit with shoppers, and he named them wife cakes in her honour. Another legend is more perturbing. It tells the story of a devoted wife who sold herself into slavery in order to pay for medical treatment for her ailing father in law. Desperate to buy her back, her husband baked some winter melon pastries and sold them in order to save up money.
The red twill cake (hung4 ling4 sou1 紅菱酥) is less famous than the wife cake but more indispensable to a traditional wedding. Made with rose-hued puff pastry filled with red beans, they reflect how red beans are a symbol of a couple’s love in classical Chinese poetry, along with how the colour red is associated with celebration and auspiciousness. It is one of three pastries whose name comes from a type of textile weave that was once affordable only to aristocrats; in Chinese, twill (ling4 綾) is a homophone of ling4 (菱), meaning water chestnut, although red twill cake doesn’t contain any of those crunchy tubers.
Yellow twill cakes (wong4 ling4 sou1 黃菱酥) are both sweet and savoury, thanks to mung bean paste—and sometimes salted egg yolk—that is seasoned with salt, sesame oil, neutral oil, dried spring onion and white sugar. Skinned mung beans represent a man’s success in his career and love life. It is also the colour of the emperor, and as such represents the blessing of a union by this “son of heaven.”
The last of the twill pastries is the white twill cake (baak6 ling4 sou1 白菱酥), which is filled with lotus seed paste. Lotus seeds symbolise fertility, as the Chinese character for lotus, lin4 (蓮) is homophonous with lin4 (連) in the expression “lin4 saang1 gwai3 zi2” (連生貴子), which is delivered as a blessing to a married couple. It translates as “giving birth to precious sons consecutively,” reflecting a preference for sons over daughters that has long been common in Chinese society.
But not all bridal pastries carry wishes for wealth and prosperity. Chinese shortbread, a light and fluffy treat made with condensed milk, white sugar, oil and lard, is a modification of Xiqiao shortbread (sai1 ciu4 daai6 beng2 西樵大餅), which was a favourite of Ming Dynasty official Fong Hin, who served under the Jiajing Emperor (1507-1567). When he retired, he brought the recipe back to his hometown in Mount Xiqiao, Foshan, where the people found the shortbread easy to make, and economical for serving many guests during weddings. It is coated with white flour as a final touch to symbolise purity.
Family is a pillar of Chinese life, so to ensure a harmonious home, new couples are given walnut cookies (hat6 tou4 sou1 核桃酥). These golden, crunchy bites are baked with lard, corn starch, eggs, flour and walnuts, and in daily life they are often enjoyed as teatime snacks. But when it comes to special occasions such as marriage, the walnuts are sometimes replaced with more expensive Chinese white olive seeds, which are a symbol of fertility.
The Chinese cupcake (daai6 daan6 gou1 大蛋糕; “big cake”) can also be consumed as a teatime snack in general. Made simply with flour, eggs, sugar and butter, and baked in a flower-shaped cup, the cake is associated with spring blossoms. Since it expands during baking, it connotes an expansion of the wallet. When offered as an engagement gift, the Chinese cupcake can only be baked with a lotus seed-shaped cup, which has eight petals.
While most bridal pastries are sweet, the last one has savoury notes to balance the palate. Preserved egg puffs (pei4 daan2 sou1 皮蛋酥) are made by folding in the dough an assortment of ingredients: sweet pickled red ginger slices, white sesame, lotus seed paste and a whole preserved egg. When cut open, the freshly baked golden puff has distinct layers of texture and colour, and which implies richness and joy.
“A lot of traditional marriage rituals have been simplified in Hong Kong nowadays,” says Cheung Zi-wing. Younger generations find them a hassle, and have replaced traditional gifts with red packets of cash. It’s also common for couples to give pâtisserie or cake coupons to their guests instead of some traditional pastries. “But still, when it comes to proposals, grooms deliver Chinese bridal pastries to brides,” says Cheung. “After all, Chinese culture is still ingrained in the local community, and not every tradition can be replaced by Western or modern practices.”