Why Chinese Birthday Cakes Aren't Sweet

Writer Su-Jit Lin resented the Chinese birthday cakes of her childhood. But it turns out they were a celebration of culture and family.

Chinese Birthday Cake

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The birthday cakes from Chinese bakeries looked so fresh in their display case, so natural. I can still see them: real strawberries weeping their juices into pure-white, barely sweet whipped cream frosting; halved, skin-on green grapes, celadon and mild-looking next to the darker half-moon slices of kiwi. Often, there’d be balls of cantaloupe or honeydew nestled in, ruining the rest of the fruit with their strong aroma. There’d be canned peaches, glistening in clingy syrup. The relatively flavorless layers of airy sponge cake were a stark contrast to the decadence of even the simplest bakery yellow cake. Its unsweetened whipped cream paled against the richness of buttercream.

I hated those Chinese birthday cakes.

For much of my early childhood, my mom and dad proudly celebrated our birthdays with those cakes. They’d drive all the way to Manhattan or Flushing—a good 40 to 75 minutes away from our home in the suburbs of Long Island, New York—to bring a cake home. Every time I opened up the plain white cake box, I was disappointed.

Growing up in a distinctly undiverse neighborhood, wanting desperately to be white and “normal,” the Chinese birthday cake was an embarrassment. Plus, I’d developed a Western penchant for sweet, crumbly cakes, and thick, rich buttercream that left an oily sheen in my mouth and a jolt to my blood sugar. I loved the peacock plumage of American birthday cakes: perfect buttercream rosettes with imperfectly mixed food coloring in electric blue, neon yellow, and hot pink. I loved the emerald green leaves and vines and the curlicue “Happy Birthday” written in narrow cursive. 

Instead, what I got was “Happy Birthday” with my name written in semi-translucent primary red gel, sometimes in English and other times in Chinese characters that were unintelligible to me. 

“Everyone else needs to be able to eat the cake, too,” my mom would patiently explain year after year as I pouted with petulance. “It’s your birthday, but the cake is for everybody.” What she meant was that Americanized birthday cakes were intolerably sweet for most older and recently immigrated family members.

Asian palates are generally more sensitive to sweets; it’s a common meme that many American-born first-gens like me laugh about with each other. In a culture where an undoctored slice of fresh orange, peeled at the peak of ripeness, is a common dessert, Chinese birthday cakes already toed the line of tolerable sweetness and toothache-induced cringes. For ultra indulgence, there might be a thin drizzle of semi-sweet chocolate on the side or chocolate filigree used as décor.

"...Americanized birthday cakes were intolerably sweet for most older and recently immigrated family members."

By the time I was in my teens, my mom ordered my birthday cakes from Benkert’s Bakery—where all the kids from my school got theirs. But she'd ordered whipped cream instead of buttercream icing. Somehow, I’d steamrolled my way to a yellow cake with strawberry or chocolate mousse and big piped buttercream roses that I’d pop into my mouth whole. It was exactly what I wanted back then.

But now, I wish I could have the stupid cakes I used to hate. I live in western Atlanta where the closest Chinese bakery is 40 minutes away and mediocre in comparison. I want the clean taste of whipped cream on ripe fruit. I want the firmer structure of the sponge cake. Plus, I’m old and wise enough to know that I can ask the bakery to omit the melon or pick out specific fruit instead of being surprised.

Most of all, now that my mom is gone, I wish I could tell her that I know it was never about the cake. That I can see my parents' love and effort—how they got my birthday cake while managing our family restaurant, running a million errands, and taking care of four children. How it was more about our family gathering and my parents catering to crowd satisfaction. How they were preserving our cultural tastes and cycling back money into our own community. 

Now as an adult, it doesn't bother me that Chinese birthday cakes aren't very sweet. It's enough that my memories are.