When Japanese Sweet Meets Western Ingredients: Siberia Cake
Japanese cuisine is amazing. It has the most interesting and healthy options, both savory and sweet. And yet some prefer more European taste, so what if Japanese and Western tastes could be combined?
Of course, this combination isn’t new, but what about the old days? Awhile back, when there was no refrigeration and ingredients from far away were more limited, such kinds of experiments were quite exciting.
Siberia dessert (シベリア) has been around for a while. It has gained more international fame with the release of “The Wind Rises” ( 風立ちぬ ) by the famous Studio Ghibli in 2013. The story was written and directed by the well-known director, Hayao Miyazaki. In the anime, the main character named Jiro bought the Siberia dessert on his way home. Later, he gave it to the begging children.
The cake is not always cut in this triangle shape, but always features the same ingredients: yokan and castella. Yokan (羊羹) has a jelly texture, but it’s vegan: instead of gelatin, it is made of agar, red bean paste, and sugar. Originally, yokan was from China and made with animal gelatin. At that time (between the Kamakura and Muromachi periods), in Japan Zen Buddhist monks prohibited consummation of animal products. That’s why yokan was modified to be made from wheat flour and the red beans. There hadn’t been domestic production of sugar, and the sweet taste was achieved by using sweet potatoes. Both agar and sugar were added only in 17th century.
Castella (カステラ) is a kind of sponge cake, inspired by the Portuguese cuisine. Although there isn’t a dessert with such name in Portugal, it has spread in Japan via Nagasaki, the first port to open trade with foreigners. Nagasaki castella is still famous, while other areas have developed their own recipes, such as Tokyo castella. You can find all different variations of flavours: matcha, chocolate, brown sugar, even cheese. Unchanged is the soft moist texture of the cake.
The origin of Siberia cake is unknown. Despite the name, there is no such cake in Russian cuisine. According to Yokohama based “Coty Bakery” (found in 1916), Siberia dessert was introduced in Japan between the end of Meiji and beginning of Taisho periods. Lack of refrigerators, but a desire for cold treats could be the explanation for the name. Arranged in the shape resembling Trans Siberian railroad, the cake was eaten cold and associated with the dark railways covered with snow.
Nowadays, Siberia cake is easily found in grocery stores. It comes both in a triangle sandwich and flat square shapes. The triangle one is usually easy to eat right from the package just like a sandwich cut in half.
It is recommended to chill the square version in the refrigerator before serving. Mine had a cute sticker with the penguin that appears only after the package has cooled. Once warm again, he will disappear along with your delicious cake!
There is no specific season to enjoy the Siberia cake. So why not have one today?