Maa Maa’s homemade birthday cakes are what I remember the most
I distinctly remember it was a hot smelly summer day on my seventh birthday. I rushed home after school to see my Maa Maa, my paternal grandmother who was visiting us from Hong Kong.
On the kitchen bench, I saw my unfinished birthday cake. It was two halves of a sponge cake and there were two bowls of jelly (one raspberry, one lime) in the fridge. These components would later come together to make a double-layered black forest cake. It was finished in white icing, called “white mountain icing,” with water swirls around the edge. It was topped with small cubes of red and green jelly, which represented the berries and leaves of forest trees. The chocolate shavings represented the bark and a “Happy Birthday Belinda” was placed in cursive on the top. Needless to say, it was extremely delicious – and there was never any leftovers.
My mom wasn’t much of a baker and she only really tried basic butter cakes. She wasn’t a fan of excess sugar or food coloring, so we were lucky if we ever had frosting on her homemade butter cakes. I still remember my mom washing the dye off the Smarties before we were allowed to eat them – a food memory I certainly didn’t pass on to my daughters. Maa Maa was often the one who injected an element of fun and color into all of her cakes and I loved them.
What I remember most about my Maa Maa’s cooking are her sweets, the ones you normally see in a traditional Chinese pastry shop. These included her daahn taat with a crispy puff pastry surrounding a smooth egg custard, sticky rice rolls with a sweet red bean paste and its crunchy taro chips, it all comes to mind.
Her name was Yeung Sui-Ngo and she later chose Mabel as her Western name, but she was always Maa Maa to me. She was born and raised in China and was the 12th child among 20 sisters and 13 brothers. As was quite common at the time, Maa Maa’s father arranged her marriage to a young man from a family of equal status, some said higher. The couple moved to Hong Kong and raised their family there with my father, one of four siblings.
“Maa Maa injected an element of fun and color into all of her cakes and I loved them.”
Maa Maa had a fairly comfortable lifestyle until the start of WWII. In the face of food shortages, she was extremely resourceful and learned to be very thrifty in running her home. She was able to stretch a cup of rice into a large pot of joke (congee) and extract every last bit of flavor from the sweet potato leaves.
In the post-war years, a shortage of domestic labor in Hong Kong forced middle-class women to cook. At that time, houses were starting to have plumbing and electricity inside. Innovations like bottled gas, ovens and refrigerators have become available, allowing for many new ways to cook and experiment.
Maa Maa evolved rapidly over time and like-minded women flocked to her. She has opened her door to host cooking classes at the Hong Kong YWCA and often gives private lessons at home. Women wanted to learn how to cook popular dishes in restaurants and were curious about Western delicacies like tiered cakes and cookies, even bowls of borscht. My mom remembers Maa Maa teaching her how to cook Portuguese-inspired dishes.
As her cooking classes grew in popularity, she appeared on TV talk shows where she held regular cooking segments and was no stranger to judging cooking contests either. During this time, Maa Maa broadened her culinary knowledge and also wanted to better understand the science behind food.
His second cookbook, Cooking documentary, was published in the 1970s. She explained the properties of ingredients, how to master basic cooking techniques and elevate everyday foods (like meatballs, mushroom omelets, and stuffed zucchini). She also explained how to cook more unusual dishes, like roasted partridge with grapes and roast duck with peach sauce. Its Chinese calligraphy adorns the cover, which was designed by my father.
In the face of food shortages, she was extremely resourceful and learned to be very thrifty in running her home.
Maa Maa cherished the rich traditions of China. She reinvented the festival dishes and gave them fanciful names, such as Lotus Pond and Water Lilies (lotus seed soup, chicken and fish face) to celebrate mid-summer, A walk with pine flowers (candied eggs and duck feet) to celebrate the Lunar New Year and Golden hairpins and sleeves (chicken wings stuffed with shark fins), which celebrates Maiden’s Day and depicts the magic of the weaver lady arriving on the seventh day of the seventh month, with gold hairpins hidden in her sleeves.
She wrote three cookbooks; the first two are written in Chinese and the third (about Chinese festivals) has both English and Chinese. At a time when it seemed like we were the only family of Chinese descent in the western suburbs of Sydney, I appreciated Maa Maa’s vast culinary knowledge and despite her inability to read Chinese her cookbooks were and are always my most precious possessions.
Although we grew up quite “Australian” as the first generation, our Chinese candy repertoire was extensive. It featured moon cakes, pineapple buns (bao polo), mochi balls stuffed with red beans, sago puddings and Chinese almond cookies, and we owe it to our Maa Maa.
While these traditions and her cookbooks shine a light on her own history of food and culture, it is still her memorable birthday cakes that my sisters and I remember the most. From its black forest to the ones featuring adorable meringue bunnies or its two-story upside down pineapple sun cakes, all seem to strike a smile or a visual memory when we talk about them.
We all took inspiration from Maa Maa to bake birthday cakes for our kids and I know we appreciate her attention to detail and presentation even more now than then, which makes them so memorable.