Is pandan chiffon cake Singapore's national cake?

Pandan chiffon cake has been named by CNN as Singapore and Malaysia's national cake. Is it?

You might have had it with a cup of Milo this morning. Or wrestled with certain Asian tourists for plane cabin space because they are lugging so many boxes of it home.

Yes, we are talking about the humble pandan chiffon cake - the ring of green and fluffy goodness ubiquitous across Singapore.

Broadcaster CNN recently crowned it Singapore and Malaysia's national cake and described it as having a "natural, woodsy flavour".

Now, most Singaporeans probably do not need further convincing of the pandan cake's inherent awesomeness.

It is suitable for any occasion, as good for a teatime snack as for a birthday celebration. Soft and light, it is popular with young and old. (Seriously, you do not need teeth for this.)

Tourists know how good it is too - especially those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Just look at the lines at the Bengawan Solo outlets at Changi Airport.

But pandan cake as the national cake in a food-obsessed nation? Is it worthy of the title?

 

In the wake of the CNN article, there has been a debate in foodie circles over whether the cake represents Singapore; if not, what other cake would be a good alternative.

For pastry chef Janice Wong, 34, it is a no-brainer - the homely cake brings back intense childhood memories.

She runs an eponymous restaurant at the National Museum of Singapore and 2am: dessertbar at Holland Village.

She says: "I would always see it on our dining table. Its rich flavour but light texture makes it a great breakfast or afternoon snack."

But not everyone is as much of a pandan cake fan as she is.

In an online poll by The Sunday Times on whether the cake deserves to be Singapore's national cake, only 45 per cent of the 4,300 votes responded "yes".

Others suggested durian cake, pork floss bun, kueh lapis and savoury fried carrot cake.

Ms Grace Tan, 38, director of kitchen equipment company ToTT, says lapis sagu (nine-layer or rainbow kueh) is a "more accurate representation of Singapore".

"The different colours represent how our many cultures can live together harmoniously."

Besides pandan chiffon cake, The Pine Garden bakery's managing director Wei Chan, 44, is uncertain what could make the cut, given that our cuisines overlap with other regional ones.

He sells about 1,000 of the cakes a week across his four outlets and the cakes are made with a mix of pandan juice and natural pandan essence.

"What we have, our neighbours in the region could have too," he says.

But he concedes that having a national cake, however arbitrarily chosen, is "a positive thing for Singapore and good for our tourism".

Whether you think pandan cake should be promoted to the status of national ambassador, finding the best version is an issue worth considering.

The Sunday Times conducted a blind tasting of 14 cakes to pick the best. The judging panel scored the cakes based on taste and texture.

The judges are Mr Wong Ah Yoke, 55, Life deputy editor and food critic; Mr Daniel Tan, 41, managing director of Food Playground; Mr Daniel Tay, 47, of cheesecake shop Cat & The Fiddle; Mr Christopher Tan, 44, food writer and cooking instructor; and chef de partie Lynnette Tay, 25, of Curate restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa.

Bengawan Solo was the clear winner, followed by PrimaDeli, Swee Heng and The Pine Garden - all home-grown bakery chains. Bengawan Solo and The Pine Garden were both recommended in the CNN article.

Other brands in the tasting include HarriAnns, Yummi Chiffon and Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry.

In 2010, The Sunday Times also did a blind taste test for seven pandan cakes - with a separate panel of judges - and Bengawan Solo also came up tops.

This time, many of the cakes left the judges underwhelmed. "Where is the pandan?" was a line that came up with increasing frustration.

For many cakes, the fragrance of the pandan proved elusive. Some were bland. Others had an overwhelming aroma of coconut which overpowered any other flavour.

Some were too wet, some underbaked and others too dry.

And when the blindfolds were removed, the judges were shocked that the colour of some cakes bordered on "luminous", while another was rainbow-coloured.

Bengawan Solo's version won for its fluffiness and balanced flavours, which go a long way in explaining why it is a flagship product.

The bakery chain sells at least 1,800 whole cakes across its 40 outlets daily. The three outlets at Changi Airport account for more than half of the sales.

Pandan cakes alone make up 18 per cent of total daily revenue, says Mrs Anastasia Liew, 70, Bengawan Solo's managing director.

Which goes to show that we can quarrel over whether the pandan cake is The Singapore Cake. But what is harder to dispute is the fact that Bengawan Solo makes The Pandan Cake.

• Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ

 

Cake ‘grew out of Singapore homes’


PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

The pandan chiffon cake is said to be of South-east Asian origin and is flavoured with the juice of the pandan leaf - which gives the cake its green hue - as well as coconut milk.

The cake is popular in not only Singapore and Malaysia, but also in other South-east Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Early recipes of the pandan chiffon cake date back to the 1970s.

Culinary doyenne and restaurateur Violet Oon, 67, says: "It grew out of Singapore homes and from cooking classes. I remember women being so proud of their pandan chiffon cake back in the 1970s."

She still has a recipe for the cake that is from a cookbook by the late Mrs Leong Yee Soo.

Cookbook author Christopher Tan, 44, has also traced a recipe to Dorothy Ng's Entertaining Cookbook, which was published in 1979.

Since then, the cake has gained a steady following and competition grew as many bakeries started selling their own version of the pandan chiffon cake.

It has also spawned other flavours such as orange and even durian.


Top four pandan cakes

1 BENGAWAN SOLO


PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

 

Where: All outlets including Tampines Mall, Tiong Bahru Plaza and Bugis Junction

Info: www.bengawansolo.com.sg

Price: $1.50 (a slice), $15 (whole cake)

Verdict: The unanimous winner among the 14 cakes tasted. The judges lauded the cake for its fluffy texture and balanced flavour. Mr Christopher Tan said: "It has a good balance of sweet and salty flavours." Mr Daniel Tay noted that the cake is "well-baked".


2 PRIMADELI


PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

 

Where: All outlets including Ang Mo Kio Hub, City Square Mall and Jurong Point

Info: www.primadeli.com

Price: $6.90 or $12.90

Verdict: This chiffon cake also has balanced flavours and Mr Christopher Tan felt that the cake's texture is closest to one that is homemade. Mr Wong Ah Yoke said: "I like the fluffy texture and light pandan flavour of this cake."


3 SWEE HENG

 

PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Where: All outlets including Boon Lay Shopping Centre, Fajar Shopping Centre and Rivervale Plaza

Info: sweeheng.sg

Price: $3 or $6

Verdict: For Swee Heng's pandan chiffon cake, the judges picked up on the stronger coconut flavour. Mr Christopher Tan immediately noted the fragrant coconut aroma, while Mr Tay and Mr Wong both liked the texture of this cake. Mr Daniel Tan said: "Although this cake has a stronger coconut flavour, I like that it is not too sweet."


4 THE PINE GARDEN


PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Where: Block 529 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, 01-2329/2369, Ang Mo Kio Hub, Compass One and Northpoint Shopping Centre

Info: www.pgcake.com

Price: $4 or $9 Verdict: The judges all agreed that the cake has a denser texture than the others. Mr Tay noted that it has a "nice sweetness". Mr Wong added that after eating the cake, the pandan flavour "develops at the end".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'A cake for everyone'. Print Edition | Subscribe