Lotus seed cakes
Lotus seed cakes made in the summer are the most delicious and have the best taste because summer is the blossoming and fruiting season of lotus. Once you try one, you can never forget the taste.
I am also one of those people who cannot forget the taste of lotus seed cake, although I only have tried it once. On the way home that day in the summer rain, the gentle taste of the lotus seed cake along with tea brewed from fresh tea leaves lingered on. It seemed to embrace the scent of the old Hue, in the kitchen of the mothers and grandmothers of the old days that I used to read in my teacher’s book.
Lotus seed cakes are made of fresh lotus seeds. The process of preparing the lotus paste is probably the most complicated and is the deciding step of the taste of the cake. After the lotus seeds have been washed, peeled and removed the embryo, they will be softened by steaming. Then, they are taken out to drain and finally mashed into a fine paste. When the mashing process is finished, the lotus paste will be mixed with sugar until the lotus mixture is dry to the touch and does not stick when rolled. My teacher said, in the old days, the mixture was slowly dried on the wood-burning stove from 10 to 12 hours until it became crispy. By this method, the cakes could be preserved for a long time and not go moldy. Nowadays, it is faster and easier to use a microwave oven for making seed lotus cakes.
We sat wrapping the cakes. The wrapping papers were cut so they would have fringes. The papers included different colors: blue, red, purple, yellow. The cakes were wrapped in a piece of small white paper first and a color paper on the outside. It was the first time I had a go at wrapping these cakes so I was a bit awkward. Aunt Trinh - a close friend of my teacher - guided me how to wrap the cakes in the easiest way. The wrapped cake must be full in the middle and the two ends of it must have the spread of color paper.
Each finished cake was laid in a small basket lined with lotus leaves or dong (Phrynium placentarium) leaves, which then was placed down on a copper tray. The arrangement was in her way so that she could preserve the rustic and most delicate tradition of Hue cuisine. Lotus seed cakes, bamboo basket, copper tray, colorful paper, all showed up as a country market on Lunar New Year Days, when the lotus seed cakes were a special and indispensable item. She looked at the tray and smiled as she asked me if it was beautiful and delicious. She always asks her guests like so when she has finished making something to treat them.
It was raining heavily on the day of the book launch. The welcome table had lotus seed cakes, green tea, white lotus flowers, and longans. I saw the amazement and the excitement of the elderly guests when they saw the tray of lotus seed cakes on the table. It may have been a long time since they last saw this kind of cake, or they may have only seen it in the vegetarian dishes at temples, but the way of presentation is different. A former Dong Khanh schoolgirl was silently beholding the cakes for a long moment. She ate one, drank a cup of tea, and said, "Wow, I haven’t tasted this for such a long time.”
My teacher would be very happy to know that, not because she was complimented on making tasty cakes, but because of the empathy and nostalgia for the kitchen of her generation. Rain was still falling as the lotus flavour lingered on in the air, warming hearts of people enjoying the late summer rain. They looked at the lotus seed cakes and wistfully remembered the old days ...
Story, photo: Nguyen Huong