Seven layers of sweet
Dried jujubes are laid at the bottom, then a layer of red raisins. The finest sticky rice, highly dilated after many hours of soaking, is spread upon it. Then dried walnuts, again followed by the sticky rice. Here might come a thin layer of sesame mixed with honey, then again the rice. Every chef has her own add-on plan, though it always aims to get another layer of sweet. But the top layer has never changed for, as the masters proudly say, thousands of years. It’s raisin topped by dried jujubes — -a symmetric to the bottom.
They also say the typical number of the layers is seven, seven layers of sweet. But that was the rigid royal recipe — it stayed as the top desert of royal dinner for thousands of years. Now it’s become a street snack. The number goes down to three or four for an individual restaurant, but altogether along the street it’s way bigger than seven — anything sweet can be added to the layers. Only the bottom and top never change.
In the very beginning — 5000 years ago since it started to serve the king’s dinner, it was laid in a pottery steamer called “Jing”. Jing was a bigger, deeper version of the bowl, with gaps at the bottom. The cooking steps have not changed much, either, since then: Covered by wet cloth, it’s heated up by the strong fire. When the steam comes out, pour water on the wet cloth to keep the moisture balance. Watering for three times, lower the fire and steam it for one night. When it’s served, you better finish it when it’s still hot. One reason is that the rice is sweeter when it’s hot, the other reason is, when it’s cold, it sticks to anything it touches. So while waiting to be served, it’s better to stay on the fire. Cutting is another craftwork. A slicing knife cuts through it from top to bottom. Sway the blade deliberately so that the little piece is driven apart from the main body — but the slighted gap possible so the layers are not wiggled. The final cut will take the piece out — all cutting-edges stay square and the layers straight.
Comes with each bite: sticky is the rice, sweet is the jujubes, soft is the raisins, mellow is the red beans, a surprising sweetness at every single layer.
It’s Xi’an sweet: Jing cake. Xi’an doesn’t have many sorts of sweets. Jing cake has stayed in the city for over 5000 years, just to say how sweet it is. To make it sweeter, it was invented by the first Chinese King — Huangdi or Yellow Emperor. Huangdi was more a myth than a real person, or as we call him, a throned Michelangelo. Along the way to unite the central part of China for the first time, he had an incredibly long list of inventions from construction, clothing, transportation, military, cooking tools, to musical instruments. He lived for 118 years, that might explain why he was so prolific, or just folklore. Nevertheless, his tomb, Huangdi Mausoleum, 100 miles or so north of Xi’an, is worshiped by Chinese around the world. It’s considered as the origin of Han ethnic — over 95% of the Chinese population.
As archeologists found, Jing was made of pottery in the beginning. It was small and deep, making it difficult to cut through the sticky rice. Then came along brass, iron, larger and shallower. The iron era about 2000 years ago largely increased the steamer’s size, hence it started to move from the palace to the street. It became popular in many cities in central China but didn’t stay for long. Only Xi’an kept it over time as it used to be the biggest and most diverse city in China. Then it moved from the sweet manual to the breakfast tables across the street.
The Jing steamers at street vendors are now mostly made of tinplate. It’s 3.5 feet or so in diameter, loaded with 15lbs sticky rice. It’s now much shallower hence easier to cut, feeding more breakfast-goers. The cost is fewer layers of sweet. But nothing stops people’s cravings for sweets. Since Xi’an became a major tourism city in China, Jing cake quickly became the visitors’ favor snack. Many Xi’an signature foods, like YRPM, Biangbiang noodle, are attached to strong flavors therefore highly polarized among foodies. Some love them as much as some hate them. But Jing cake is loved by all for its comprehensive yet layered sweetness. Apparently Jing cake is not on the top of Huangdi’s contributions, but it’s definitely the one that, after thousands of years, still sweetens people’s daily life.