Japanese Mamon

mamonOnce in a while, I get a craving for mamon, for its yellow, fluffy, eggy, cheese-topped, lemon-whiff sponginess. Mamon is my petite madeleine, the sweetness of childhood, of Sunday afternoons in the Luneta Park, in one big bite. Mamon is made of flour, sugar, and eggs. The egg yolks and egg whites are separated, beaten and then folded into each other, the batter baked in individual tin brioche molds.

One of the things I love about Japan is that it, too, has its own tradition of making mamon that dates back to the arrival of the Portuguese and Spaniards in Asia more than four centuries ago. The Japanese version of mamon is called Castella (カステラ), a name that should be familiar to us Pinoys (because we call all Spaniards “Kastila”) and a name that pinpoints the origins of this particular type of bizcocho in the kingdom of Castile in Spain.

Bizcochos were biscuits that could be stored and consumed aboard ships on long sea voyages, but the term is now used in Spain to refer mainly to sponge cakes. Mamon, on the other hand, is derived from the Moorish term maimon (in Arabic, it means “good fortune,” or “luck”). Salamanca, along with some areas of Zamora, is famous for its bollo maimon, served in weddings and other festivities. Salamanca maimon traditionally used lard and did not separate its yolks and whites.

My favorite castella is made by the Nagasaki firm Fukusaya, which was established in 1624. The Japanese cousin of mamon was said to have been introduced by the Portuguese, whose pão-de-ló is also a close relative. 1624 is an interesting year to found a castella shop. The Portuguese had begun frequenting Japan in the 1540s, and their missionaries preceded the Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans in proselytizing among the Japanese. But owing to complex reasons (fear of Spanish invasion, the Japanese converts’ propensity to donate their lands to the Church, financial scandal, among others), the Tokugawa shogunate banned Christianity in 1614. One point of intersection between Philippine and Japanese history concerns the first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz, who was martyred in Nagasaki in 1637 along with a Kyoto leper named Lazaro, now also a saint.

The same year that Fukusaya set up shop, the shogunate barred Spanish ships from entering Japan. In 1633, Japan was closed to all foreigners except the Dutch traders, who were allowed in as far as the island of Dejima. While the Bakufu government kept Europeans away or apart from its people, it proved more tolerant of the food these Christians brought with them. When the Japanese emperor sent an envoy to the shogun, one of the gifts presented by the Tokugawas to the emissary was castella.

Castella is a product of the Iberian presence (and in the case of the Philippines, colonialism) in Asia, but it is also worth noting that Fukusaya derived its name from the ancient city of Fuzhou, now the capital of Fujian Province, in southeastern China. (Most Tsinoys trace their ancestry to Fujian Province, but the topolect called Hokkien or Minnanhua spoken by their ancestors in Quanzhou and Zhangzhou is mutually unintelligible with the Fuzhou topolect). The reason is that Fukusaya used to import its sugar from Fuzhou, hence its name (福砂屋), which literally means Fuzhou Sugar Shop. (Before it moved into sugar production in a major way, early colonial Philippines also imported sugar from China.)

CastellaFukusaya has a booth in Daimaru Kyoto, where a 0.6-size long rectangular box of castella retails for around 1,188 yen. (Fukusaya’s “Hollander” cake is made of cocoa and rum-soaked raisins). For a little over 500 yen, one can buy colorful cubes containing just two slices.

The famed Japanese attention to detail and taste is evident in the care with which castellas are made. Using only the finest eggs, high-grade white and brown sugar (for example, the Sanbonto from Tokushima) and unbleached flour, which are still beaten by hand in copper pots in Fukusaya, castellas are baked in square wooden boxes, and have to be taken out of the oven and smoothed over with a long wooden spatula to obtain an even, brown surface. An expert cutter then slices the sponge cake, again by hand, not machine, into rectangles that are sold in groups of ten.

I find the castella much richer–eggier–than mamon. Fukusaya castella is deep golden-yellow, with a beautiful brown surface and a toasty bottom strewn with sugar crystals. Some castellas–leading brands include Bunmeido and Nagasakiya–use honey, while others come in powdered green-tea or brown-tea or red-bean-paste mochi flavors.

Otakedo has an award-winning peach castella, while Shinsendo offers strawberry, caramel, and cheese, plus regular castella in a limited-edition Hello Kitty box.

Castella is not only comfort food; it is also a slice of shared history.


Originally posted in Letters to Narcissus.

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