Castella cake is a soft golden-colored sponge cake with a moist texture and mild sweetness. It comes in a distinctive square or rectangular shape and is sold in long boxes. Originating in Nagasaki prefecture, castella cake is now sold all over Japan as a popular souvenir.
Containing just four ingredients – wheat flour, eggs, sugar, and mizuame (a kind of malt syrup derived from glutinous rice or potato starch) – castella cake is baked in a wooden frame and has a light and fluffy texture and is the perfect accompaniment to tea or coffee. Despite its non-mochi-like appearance, the addition of mizuame is why Castella cake is considered a Japanese-style confection (wagashi) as opposed to a Western-style treat (yōgashi).
Japan, Meet Sugar
Castella cake was first introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants. It was known as “Pão de Castella,” or “Cake of Castile,” as in the Kingdom of Castile. Castile means castle in Spanish, which may have something to do with the confectionery’s imposing, castle-like appearance.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan in 1543. Japan called the Portuguese and other international merchants Nanban, or Southern barbarians. Despite the unfortunate moniker, the Japanese traded extensively with the Portuguese from 1543 to 1614 to gain access to coveted goods including silk, porcelain, firearms, and most importantly, sugar.
Sugar was an expensive luxury prior to the Nanban trade in Japan and was mostly reserved for medical use until the Portuguese introduced it as a sweetener for confectioneries. Castella cake could sustain sailors at sea for long periods of time due to its long shelf life. The cake remained a popular item with locals even after Japan introduced its isolationist foreign policy in 1614 which lasted for over 200 years.
During Japan’s Nanban trade, Japan adopted Portuguese-derived vocabulary that is still in use today, including words like tempura (from the Portuguese word tempero, meaning condiment) and charumera (a traditional instrument used by ramen street vendors to attract customers, originating from the Portuguese charamela). Japan's Myojo Foods even has an instant ramen brand named after the flute.
Castella cake isn’t the only international dish that originated in Nagasaki - Champon is a Chinese-style noodle dish with pork, shrimp, wood ear mushrooms, and vegetables. Japan’s most popular Champon noodle chain Ringer Hut is named after British merchant Thomas Ringer, and even has a location in Hawaii. Our September box featured Myojo Charumera Champon inspired by Nagasaki's iconic ramen dish.
Let Us Eat Cake
Best Places to Try Castella Cake
Fukusaya was established in Nagasaki in 1624 and is the longest-standing castella cake manufacturer. Fukusaya castella cake is popular for its crunchy granulated zarame sugar crystals at the bottom of the cake.
It also serves Hollander Cake, a chocolate variety with walnuts and raisins that serves as a tribute to the Dutch merchants who followed the Portuguese to expand international trade in Japan. The delicious treats from this shop are available in department stores nationwide, so you don’t have to travel as far as Kyushu to try them.
Shooken was established during Japan’s Edo period in in 1681. Also popular for its granulated zarame sugar crystals at the bottom of each slice, each tray is baked one at a time to ensure consistent quality and authentic taste.
Shooken also specializes in making Gosanyaki castella cake, a premium-style sponge cake that includes more egg yolk and sugar than traditional castella cake for a richer color and sweeter taste.
Bunmeido was established a little later than the others, being established during Japan’s Meiji period in 1900 and is Nagasaki’s most famous castella shop. At this point in history, Japan had begun producing its own sugar rather than importing it from abroad, bringing down the cost of castella cake.
Moreover, Japan began to embrace Western influences during this time, bringing a renewed interest in European-style confectioneries. A 1960s commercial promoting Bunmeido boosted castella cake to a nation-wide craze, and the shop has been a popular spot to visit on the way to Nagasaki’s historic Dejima wharf ever since.
Bunmeido also specializes in a limited-edition peach fondant-coated castella cake for the spring and other unique takes on castella cake.
Premium Gosan castella is made with more egg yolk and sugar than traditional castella - Can you tell the difference? Image via Adobe
Let us know in the comments what kind of castella cake you'd like to try!