Apr 1, 2015

NAGASAKI’S STORY – Sweet Memories! –

No trip to Nagasaki is complete without purchasing its famous snack, Castella.

Ambience of Dutch Trading Post in 17th century
©Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture
Castella ©Fukusaya

We understand if, at first sight, you think you are just looking at another sponge cake. After all, given that its ingredients are just sugar, flour, and eggs, the Castella’s appearance resembles that of a loaf cake or a pound cake. But yet, the Castella is an important symbol of Nagasaki’s history as the first Japanese port to open to foreign traders. It is therefore THE food gift you have to buy home if you want your loved ones to experience a taste of Nagasaki.

Sugar And Everything Nice!

This Nagasaki specialty was first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in mid 16th century. Castella was not the name of this cake. It was called Castella because Portuguese missionaries called it “the bread of Castile”. As the Japanese diet did not include sugar at the time, the dessert was an expensive one to make. Sugar, as a commodity, was pricey as it had to be imported from China. Nagasaki, being the only port opened to foreigners and their goods, allowed people access to this luxurious ingredient. It was only in 19th century that the supply of sugar became stable with domestic production in Japan, making it more affordable.

Unlike most cakes, the Castella does not contain butter because the Japanese were unaccustomed to consuming dairy products back in those days. However, its simple taste and flavour soon made the cake very popular amongst the people; so much so that those without an oven invented a way to bake the cake with a method called “hiki gama”, whereby the batter was poured into a giant pan and slowly cooked on a stove, while hot coals were placed on the lid to ensure there was heat on top as well as at the bottom of the pan.

It is believed that the Castella – given its high calorie count – was also given to patients suffering from tuberculosis to help prevent them from losing too much weight.

What A Delightful Treat

Today, the Castella is an affordable dessert for not just the Nagasaki locals but also for its visitors. Typically presented in a form of a loaf cake, the Castella is also available sliced up and individually packed for easy consumption. You’ll find it not only in its original flavour but also in flavours like chocolate, strawberry, matcha , cheese or black sugar. There are even Castella flavoured ice cream!

In some specialty shops, you can even find Castellas made by masters who still whip up the egg mixture by hand and they make just 25 Castella cakes a day.

Although you can now find the Castella in other parts of Japan, the cake is synonymous to Nagasaki. It is a result of the prefecture’s early interaction with foreigners, a creation of what was once considered a “foreign snack” now made uniquely Japanese.

“Hikigama”, Japan’s very first charcoal oven to bake Castella, used until 1950’s.