“Not too sweet,” my pickiest aunt says with a hint of approval, cutting into a slice of Paris Baguette’s strawberry soft cream cake No. 3. It’s my 24th birthday dinner, and in our sprawling Chinese-Filipino family, I’m one of the youngest — the only American-born one with an international taste in sweets, which is why I’ve insisted on a cake from one of the six Los Angeles locations of Paris Baguette, the popular French-influenced South Korean bakery chain.
Within minutes of blowing out the candles, I’ve inhaled a whole slice of the soft vanilla sponge cake, its texture light as a cloud, the flavor of strawberry and raspberry intermingling with a whipped topping reminiscent of Cool Whip and dotted with freshly sliced strawberries. The cake’s subtle sweetness is a welcome relief from heavy, American-style birthday cakes popularized by bakeries like Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar and SusieCakes, a chain in Southern California. Instead, Paris Baguette’s treat is one of the countless iterations of a dessert universally beloved among East Asians in the West: the Asian fruit cream cake.
Considered a Western-style bakery treat in Asia, the fruit cream cake, also known as the Chinese bakery fruit cake, is ubiquitous in East Asian immigrant communities, and the dessert is popular in some Vietnamese and Filipino immigrant communities as well. It also comes in Japanese and Korean iterations, and can be found everywhere from North America to Australia to Mauritius, a small island nation off the coast of Africa. In Chinese, it’s known as shuiguo dangao, meaning “fresh fruit cake.” The Korean analogue is saengkeulim keikeu, an eye-catching fresh cream cake topped with strawberries popular on birthdays and at other big-ticket celebrations.
For Chinese-Australian Wilhelmina Zhang, the fruit cream cake is pure nostalgia. “It was at every birthday dinner, every gathering in my childhood,” she says. “If no one could decide on a birthday cake, my mum would just go out and grab one.” Growing up in the predominantly Chinese Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, Filipino-Canadian Angelina Lagunzad says she’s been eating Asian fruit cream cake as far back as she can remember. When it came time for her and her sisters to plan their traditional Filipino debuts, an 18th birthday coming-of-age celebration, the cream cake was their natural go-to. “The part that we like the most about it is that it’s really light,” Lagunzad says. “We don’t like cakes that are super heavy.”
Unlike a strawberry shortcake, which originated from a sweet English biscuit recipe and is crumbly and heavier in texture, the Asian fruit cream cake typically uses a traditional lighter sponge cake base, which distinguishes itself from the similar-tasting French genoise in that it contains no added fat such as butter or oil. Both batter types, however, require separation of the whites and yolks; the whites are folded into the batter after they’re turned into a fluffy meringue. A few Chinese bakeries, like New York City’s Fay Da, prefer to use a chiffon base, which calls for oil or butter to increase the moistness of the finished product. The whipped topping that ices and fills the cake, in most cases, consists of a vegetable oil base similar to Cool Whip in lieu of heavier traditional whipping cream. Often adorned with strawberries, fruit cream cakes might also be topped with kiwis, peaches, mango or even the pungent-smelling durian, depending on the season and the bakery’s geographic region.
For first-generation and immigrant Asians in the West, the cake harks back to childhood birthdays with parents who scorned sugary, confetti-soaked buttercream confections in favor of something more subtle; it also represents a departure from Asian desserts like Chinese cruller donuts, sweet rice cakes, stuffed pastries, and moon cakes. The love for the cake has inspired memes garnering thousands of likes on Subtle Asian Traits, a Facebook group and meme page with over 1.6 million members. Founded by a group of young Chinese Australians, the page has grown to include Asians of every stripe online, albeit with a strong East and Southeast Asian slant. A March 2019 image and text post by Vancouver-based Chinese American Alyssa Therrien captioned “ok but why isn’t anyone talking about the deliciousness of Chinese fruit cakes” received over 11,000 likes; Therrien says she loves the cake so much that she plans to have it at her wedding.
Chinese-Canadian Virginia Su, who’s never known a birthday in her family without the cake, says it reflects the general lack of aggressive sweetness in Chinese desserts. “I don’t know why, but in Chinese culture, a good dessert is one that isn’t overpowering,” Su says. “It’s something that you can enjoy after your meal that doesn’t overpower and override what you had.”
The Asian fruit cream cake has no singular origin story — when asked, several experts in food history, Chinese-American food, and East Asian Studies were stumped — although all guesses point to historical influences from the West. Irene Yoo of Food52 has chronicled its enduring popularity as a Christmas treat in South Korea, linking the festive cake to the Christian holiday. According to Frida Lee, a Wordpress blogger with a degree in East Asian Studies, Chinese people began baking Western-style pastries, breads, and cakes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwanese bakers learned to make Western-style goods during Japanese occupation in the late 1930s in the Meiji period — a time when the emperor adopted Western industrial advances and resulting cultural influences. In Hong Kong, over a century and a half of British colonization left a legacy of European culinary technique in local cuisine, one reflected in dim sum egg tarts as well as fruit cream cake.
However, even this broad explanation can’t account for the convergent evolution of iterations like Los Angeles-based Phoenix Bakery’s strawberry cake. Located in LA’s Chinatown, Phoenix Bakery is run by the Chan family, who have been baking their signature cake — made of sponge cake, filled with fresh strawberries, and coated with almond slivers — since the bakery opened in 1938. According to Ken Chan, son of founder Fung Chow Chan, his uncle Lun brought over his recipe from mainland China. “None of us really know how [the cake recipe] came about,” says Youlen Chan, Lun’s son. The bakery struggled to sell the cake until the 1960s, he says, when it became a household name in greater Los Angeles.
New York-based Taiwanese bakery Fay Da, on the other hand, traces its recipe to Taiwan. According to general manager Chi Chou, her father, Han Chou, developed the bakery’s recipe — which uses a slightly drier chiffon base instead of sponge, which produces a lighter and fluffier texture — in the United States after apprenticing under a chef at a U.S. Army base in Taiwan. Chou says that according to her father, the fruit cream cake already existed in some form in 1960s Taiwan, although improvements in flour processing have made today’s version much smoother in texture.
That fruit cream cake is still seen as Western-style baking in Asia reflects the dual nature of the delicate dessert — on one continent, it’s an indulgent meal-finisher that owes its existence to European and American colonization; on others, it’s a slice of respite from buttercream-laden birthday cakes that’s loved by a few communities but largely overlooked by the general population. In essence, the Asian fruit cream cake is both happy byproduct and fallout from globalization. Its popularity strengthens cultural ties to places that members of the Asian diaspora may have never visited, but it’s also an example of the gulfs between Asians in the West, people from Asia, and everyone else.
“[W]hile [East Asian bakeries] certainly serve as a delicious tether for visitors and immigrants on either side of the Pacific, their greatest treat may be the sense of community they foster for immigrant communities outside of their origin nations,” Lilian (now Lio) Min wrote at MyRecipes’ Extra Crispy section, referring to Paris Baguette and Taiwanese chain 85 Degrees. Whenever Asian Americans like me or Min write about foods that tug immigrant and first-generation heartstrings, we invariably run into one large stumbling block — that our entire framework is defined by the otherness of Asians in the Western world.
Though Min doesn’t specifically mention the fruit cream cake in their piece, they hint at an inherent tension in discussing Asian food in English-language media, even among writers of Asian descent — that these dishes have an entirely different significance and cultural context in non-English corners of the internet, media outlets, and the world at large. “While I’ve been cavalierly referring to East Asian bakeries as, well, East Asian bakeries, this is only true in the West,” Min wrote.
Until I saw a fruit cream cake meme in Subtle Asian Traits a little over a year ago, I had no idea that it had such widespread cultural resonance. On any given evening, thousands of people who will likely never meet will sit at tables around the world, blowing out the candles on near-identical cakes. Though clearly less iconic than boba milk tea in constructing Asian-American identity, the fruit cream cake seems to signify an even larger universal Asian experience in the West. It’s an unsung childhood treat for immigrant and first-generation Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Filipino kids in the United States, Canada, and Australia that can make thousands around the world smash that Facebook like button.
At the same time, acknowledgement of the fruit cream cake’s universality rings somewhat hollow. In Jenny Zhang’s Eater piece on pearl milk tea and boba liberalism, she makes it clear that the link between Asian-American identity and boba indicates the fraught condition of an Asian diaspora searching for home and finding it, in a problematic way, in food-as-identity politics. Applying the same tropes of identity construction over shared experience to the Asian fruit cream cake would not only oversimplify its narrative, but also obscure the other ways the cake is significant, such as in how it unintentionally lends credence to the stereotype that Asians prefer milder desserts. (In two independent studies in the journal Food Quality and Preference studying differences in sweetness preference between white Australians versus Malaysian and Japanese consumers, neither group of researchers found compelling evidence to suggest either Asian ethnic group preferred foods that are less sweet.)
In addition, the Asian fruit cream cake serves as a quiet reminder of bidirectional culinary influence between colonizing nations and the places over which they have historically held power. Although the debates over cultural appropriation in American food writing today might imply that “borrowing” culinary styles is a recent, one-way phenomenon committed again people of color, plenty of much-beloved dishes demonstrate the long legacy of Asian cultures co-opting Western ingredients and technique to create dishes entirely their own. From the Asian fruit cream cake to Korean budaejjigae to the entire subcategory of Japanese yoshoku, the annals of Asian cooking are littered with examples of how globalization has shaped the foods that people from Asian immigrant households are so intimately familiar with. Foods like these, and like the fruit cream cake, are easy fodder for many Asians in the West looking to invoke nostalgia for their immigrant upbringings, but this sentimental approach disregards the violent colonial history from which these dishes emerged.
It would be too easy to pigeonhole the Asian fruit cream cake as an even larger global cultural touchpoint for the Asian diaspora in the West. In truth, the Paris Baguette cream cake I ate last fall is more than that — underneath the elegant simplicity of cake, fruit, and cream lies a complex web of tensions between Asians in the West and the East, untidy origin stories, and Western colonization. To me, however, the taste is still sweet. Not too sweet.
Patricia Kelly Yeo is a freelance food, health, and culture journalist in Los Angeles.