Centuries ago, bakers were limited in the tools they used to make desserts. But today, dusty pastry molds, along with baking recipes and hand-written menus, have become invaluable witnesses to the nation’s confectionary culture, which continues to evolve and thrive.
Taipei Story House (台北故事館) has reconstructed a part of Taiwanese confectionery history with Taiwan Story of Sweets (甜點．故事．台灣味), an exhibition that brings together roughly 40 molds and other sweets-inspired objects that were borrowed from bakeries and antiquarians nationwide.
“There are more to pastry molds than meets the eye,” said Estelle Huang (黃紫吟), a curator for the exhibit. Huang added that the materials, sizes and shapes all serve as a genuine reflection of the nation’s living conditions and culture.
Wood was frequently used to create molds because it was inexpensive, easy to carve and durable. And since sweets were luxuries for grand occasions such as weddings, birthdays and funerals, the designs carved into the molds often possessed an auspicious connotation.
Tortoise, fish, shrimp, lotus, pineapple and guava were the motifs most often used because they symbolized longevity and prosperity.
“Interestingly, some molds have English words carved into them. This attests to the impact Western culture has had on Taiwan,” said Sally Chen (陳淑美), head of the Taipei Story House’s promotion section. More recent molds also have Christmas bells and New Taiwan Dollar motifs.
Taiwan started to grow sugar cane during the Dutch colonial period in the 17th century. Over time, sugar evolved from a cash crop to a dessert ingredient. The variety of sweets was limited due to a lack of spices and condiments, with most desserts made by mixing wheat or rice flour with sugar and local produce.
Banana candies (香蕉飴), mung bean cake (綠豆糕) and malt biscuits (麥芽糖) were among the early pastries. It was not until much later that elaborate cakes were popularized.
Another highlight of the exhibition is a figurine of Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), a famous military strategist during China’s Three Kingdoms period.
“Although he was known more as a statesman, he is widely recognized by Taiwanese bakers as the inventor of [Chinese] pastries. Local bakeries worship him on his birthday, which falls on the 23rd day of the seventh month of the Lunar calendar,” said Chen.
Zhuge was said to have distributed a large amount of cakes to soldiers and residents as a strategy to make sure Sun Quan (孫權) would keep his word and marry the sister of Liu Bei (劉備), Zhuge’s master.
Visitors to the exhibit can purchase small pastry mold replicas, as well as make postcards in the shape of a tortoise cake and listen to a lecture on the molds (reservations required). A sweets market will be held on Jan 20. Part of the proceedings will go to Children Are Us Foundation (喜憨兒社會福利基金會), a local group that cares for intellectually challenged children.