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  • Spencer Low

Japanese castella cake カステラ

Updated: Mar 6

文明堂's beautiful wrapping paper showing a Portuguese man with a servant.

A few months ago I wrote a post about how the Portuguese introduced pumpkin to Japan. My family and I went to Japan a few weeks ago for a ski holiday, after which we spent a few days in Tokyo. Flying out of Tokyo's Narita airport, I was browsing for gifts and found beautifully wrapped boxes of カステラ (kasutera), the Japanese word for "castella". Considered a type of 和菓子 (wagashi), or traditional Japanese confectionery, castella cake has a more than 400 year old history going back to the arrival of Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. Traditionally associated with Nagasaki in western Japan, I was surprised to see this at a Tokyo airport, but delighted that visitors could leave with such a meaningful gift for themselves or others.

A slice of Bunmeidō kasutera (文明堂のカステラ)

The name kasutera comes from the Portuguese "bolo de Castela", or "cake from Castile". This was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 1500s with the trade that started after Portuguese sailors accidentally "discovered" Japan. An earlier post on this blog describes how 2023 marked 480 years of friendship between Japan and Portugal. "Cake from Castile" is essentially a simple sponge cake, and the closest equivalent in Portugal today is the equally delicious pão de ló. The reference to Castile comes from Catherine of Austria, the Queen of Portugal from 1525 to 1558. Catherine was the daughter of the Spanish King Philip I and Queen Joanna of Castile, and when she married Portugal's King John III she introduced the Spanish sponge cake bizcocho which evolved into bolo de Castela and later pão de ló. The bolo de Castela could survive long sea journeys and was therefore popular with sailors. In Japan, it was considered a luxury item as sugar was extremely expensive. A shogun was said to have presented the cake to an envoy of the Japanese emperor.

Kasutera continues to be fairly well-known throughout Japan, and still considered a specialty of Nagasaki, the only port that the Portuguese (and later the Dutch) were allowed to use for trading. The Japanese have a strong sense of history, and to this day many Japanese are aware that this "Japanese confectionery" came from the Portuguese. This can be seen in the packaging used:

The illustrations show Portuguese merchants in 16th century attire as well as the nau ships used for trading (a lot of which passed through Macau). The style is clearly inspired by or at least consistent with Naizen Kanō (狩野内膳) who created famous Nanban (南蛮) screen paintings on byōbu (屏風) folding screens. Nanban referred to the "Southern Barbarians", namely the Portuguese and later other Europeans who first appeared in Japan sailing in from the south (Macau and Southeast Asia). Here's one of Kanō's more famous pieces, dated from around 1600:

The kasutera I bought was made by 文明堂 (Bunmeidō), one of three principal companies specializing in this confectionery, all of them based in Nagasaki. Founded in 1900, Bunmeidō is the young upstart with "only" 124 years of history. The other two, 本家福砂屋 (Honke Fukusaya) and 松翁軒 (Shōōken), were founded in 1624 and 1681 respectively.

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