Culture as sweet as sugar
By: No Author Indicated
Culture as sweet as sugar
Patissier Zhou Yi specializes in making exquisite portraits of Chinese fictional and historical characters, such as a flying apsara.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Traditional myths provide inspiration for culinary delights as cakes take on a legendary status, Cheng Yuezhu reports.
At traditional Chinese markets, tangren (sugar people) are a popular draw, as they make for an entertaining treat for children and adults alike.
Name practically any animal or famous fictional character and, with great ease, the folk artisans will mold maltose syrup into a figure that can be easily held and eaten off a stick.
With deft handiwork, vendors seem to bring the molten bronze liquid to life, as they shape it into a mouthwatering piece of art.
In the past five years, however, patissier Zhou Yi has been taking the concept to the next level, combining fondant cake-making skills with Chinese dough-sculpting techniques to create elaborate edible figurines of the country's historical or mythical characters.
Patissier Zhou Yi specializes in making exquisite portraits of Chinese fictional and historical characters, such as empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).[Photo provided to China Daily]
One of his latest creations — combining the likeness of a flying apsara (a fairy, or feitian in Chinese) with a mythological beast that is half fish and half bird, from the ancient text Classic of Mountains and Seas, and whose appearance bodes well for a good harvest — took him four months to complete.
The cake presents a scene found in a mural at Gansu province's Mogao Caves, where the flying apsara is shown to be playing pipa (a Chinese plucked string instrument) in an unusual reversed posture, with the instrument raised high in the air at the back of her head.
Apart from fondant, Zhou also used the traditional pulled sugar technique in parts of the work, such as the pipa, to give the instrument a translucent effect that matches the ethereal quality of the goddess.
"I don't think cakes are just for eating. They are also a medium that is able to carry many creative ideas. The cultural heritage of Chinese civilization over the millennia can take on new and vibrant forms on a small piece of cake," Zhou says.
The 40-year-old learned Chinese cooking techniques at the Sichuan Tourism University in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Zhou puts the final touches on a fondant figurine of Chang'e, the moon goddess of Chinese mythology.[Photo provided to China Daily]
There he got to know about the country's food history and culture, in particular the techniques used in folk cuisine, as well as mastering food science, which allows him to develop new recipes.
Wishing to master an area of expertise in order to support himself after graduation, he chose to focus on the folk skill of dough sculpture — the making of vivid three-dimensional models of plants, animals and human figures using dough as a raw material.
As pictures of his figurines attracted followers online, a client commissioned him to make a figurine of her favorite character, but requested that it be made using fondant, a material he had never worked with before.
With an innate curiosity for anything related to food science, Zhou started researching the features of fondant, as well as its history, and found it peculiar that there were no original Chinese designs or cultural elements in fondant cakes.
A fondant cake, more than 2 meters tall, depicting a lion dance, is one of the creations Zhou displayed at his recent exhibition in Macao's Cotai resort.[Photo provided to China Daily]
"I felt that although fondant is a Western technique, sugar is something that is enjoyed by people of all nationalities. Since I was considerably skilled in dough sculpting, I thought I could also make fondant cakes that present Chinese culture," Zhou says.
In 2017, he took his fondant team to Cake International, an annual cake show and competition that is held in the United Kingdom, and won three gold awards and two bronze awards.
His own fondant creation, a piece depicting Wu Zetian, an empress from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), won a gold award and was named the "international best in show".
"I was doing fairly well in China, but I didn't know much about the international scene. I really just hoped to learn something from other patissiers," Zhou says.
Zhou poses with one of his artworks.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Despite the casual tone with which he recalls the experience, he faced a grueling schedule when preparing for the competition.
Aside from making his two entries within seven days, he also had to supervise the work of his other team members.
Grabbing only a few hours of sleep each night was the norm.
He tells one anecdote about his entry that portrayed a girl dressed in hanfu (a traditional style of Chinese attire), leaning on a piece of rock in a lake. For the piece, he used pulled sugar to portray the water, which was too thick to cut through, disqualifying it from the category it was initially submitted to.
However, the judges thought the cake was a wonderful piece and made an exception, transferring the entry to the "decorative exhibit" category, where it won Zhou a bronze.
Zhou and his team returned to Cake International in 2019, breaking their previous record and claiming a total of four gold awards.
Over the years, he has continued to hone his fondant-shaping skills while tapping Chinese cultural elements for inspiration, creating works ranging from fondant replicas of archaeological artifacts to elaborate scenes that depict cultural traditions.
Patissier Zhou Yi specializes in making exquisite portraits of Chinese fictional and historical characters, such as poet Tang Wan of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).[Photo provided to China Daily]
His most popular works, though, are the detailed and exquisite portraiture of fictional characters that allow him to exert his imagination and creativity.
"I am fascinated by traditional Chinese culture, such as hanfu, ornaments, artifacts and stories. We have so many original characters and stories, but not enough people to elaborate on these characters to make them vivid and memorable," Zhou says.
"This is a passion of mine and something I'll keep working on, with the hope of introducing these Chinese cultural elements to more people through aesthetically pleasing works."
He recently collaborated with MGM China Holdings Ltd on presenting an exhibition at MGM Cotai resort in Macao, for which he created five fondant sculptures over 2 meters tall that highlight the culture of South China, or Lingnan, such as lion dancing and morning tea.
" (This exhibition) rejuvenates Chinese traditional culture by presenting traditional festivity, etiquette and livelihood in a contemporary manner and infusing the influence of guochao (a Chinese consumer trend that modernizes traditional culture), to merge art with life," says Pansy Ho, co-chairperson and executive director of MGM China Holdings Ltd.
Zhou continues to refine his skills and perfect his recipes, producing fondant cakes that are both exquisite and appetizing.
When looking back at the works he produced several years ago, even the award-winning ones, he feels like he has made progress in terms of his skill and representation of Chinese culture.
"Innovation is a process of constantly learning. I plan to keep a close eye on Chinese history and culture, and also to exchange with the cultures of other countries and regions, so as to present Chinese traditional culture in the most innovative ways I can," Zhou adds.
I have seen amazing talent and fantastic skills here, but this artist takes the cake.
Evening... absolutely stunning Buzz..what an incredible talent...
Slightly off topic and I know I don't know a great deal about ice, snow and freezing but....
They just interviewed a women sitting in the car in California surrounded by 2 metres of snow etc...she is sooking to the reporter she had just brought a heap of groceries and because she has no power has to throw it all out...
What the hell!! And the friggin place is frozen!!!.. can't you put things in a plastic containers/bags seal it and go and bury it in the snow??...or things from the fridge again put it in containers and put it outside in the cold??
I know I may have a few roos loose in the top paddock, but surely you can keep stuff frozen for a few days or am I missing something here???..
You're right. We freeze all kinds of stuff. But you have to realize that weather like that almost never happens if California, especially in Southern California, and she probably has no idea that the snow can be used to preserve whatever she bought.
Yeah, I'll say. He creates incredible edibles.
Culture? On NT?
Evening... culture!!!..cause there is!!!.
I am on here what more could you want..
I'm happy you're here. There's almost nobody else to talk to during the afternoon, and we are Commonwealth buddies.
Well I am trundling off to bed.. nothing on tv and it is windy and raining... summer has gone and Autumn has moved in big time..
Enjoy your evening and hoo roo (goodbye) for now..🐨🐨🐨
Too pretty to eat.
Well, you know what Marie Antoinette said.
I know what she supposedly said, but there is zero evidence for it.
Well, whether she said it or not, I just said that she said it, and you can't deny that I said that.
Amazing artistry !
In all my long life I never saw anything like it, but then there is still so much more to see.
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