East Asia is increasingly caught up in a love affair with Taiwan’s signature pastry.
Tucked away on a luxuriant side street in Taipei’s tony Minsheng Community neighborhood is an unassuming and quiet café. While sparsely furnished, the café exudes a gentle warmth, its caramel wood walls bathed in the halcyon glow of halogen track lighting.
Inside the shop, business is good – very good. On a Tuesday afternoon well past tea time, guests line the two long tables. Waitresses scurry busily between the tables as guests sip on tea and munch on pastries. The customers, who include visitors from across Asia, have come specifically to savor the pineapple cake (fengli su, 鳳梨酥), a Taiwanese shortcake made from butter, flour, egg, sugar, and pineapple jam. Its crumbly, fragrant crust and the chewy, sweet fruit filling go nicely with a cup of hot tea.
The café is a retail outlet for a Nantou-based company, SunnyHills, whose artisanal pineapple pastries are among Taiwan’s most sought after. Given the dozens of brands on the market, many which tout their premium ingredients and farm-to-table production processes, SunnyHills’ enduring popularity is no small feat.
The company has found its niche, targeting high-end shoppers from East Asia. In addition to its three Taiwan stores, it has opened shops in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
“They have very high standards,” says Grace Lin, deputy director general of the Agriculture and Food Agency under the Executive Yuan’s Council of Agriculture, noting the company’s use of pure pineapple jam instead of the cheaper, more widely used filling made of pineapple and winter melon.
SunnyHills is also channeling the explosive popularity of pineapple cake itself. The fruity pastry has become so popular that is mentioned in the same breath as stinky tofu among connoisseurs of Taiwanese snacks. Unlike the putrid beancurd, however, pineapple cake can be conveniently packaged and gifted.
Pineapple cake’s ascent has dovetailed with the emergence of Taiwan as a top destination for Asian tourists over the past seven years. Mainland Chinese traveling in tour groups are the biggest buyers, market observers say. The pastries are also very popular with independent Chinese travelers, including Hong Kongers, Japanese, South Koreans, and Singaporeans.
Total revenue for Taiwan’s pineapple cake bakeries have soared from the NT$3 billion (US$91.6 million) registered in 2006 to NT$40 billion (US$1.2 billion) in 2013, according to remarks that then Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-pin made at the 2014 Taipei Pineapple Cake Festival.
Pineapple history 101
What has made Taiwan’s pineapple cake so popular? The pastry’s celebrity status in Asia can be attributed at least in part to Taiwan’s expertise in pineapple production.
The fruit was grown on Taiwan as early as the mid-17th century and became a key industry during the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945).
There are more than 50 known varieties of pineapples, but they can generally be classified into three main categories: the Golden Pineapple, the Cayenne, and the Spain. Best for pineapple cake is the Cayenne, which has round fruit filled with yellow pulp. The Cayenne is indigenous to Hawaii.
Originally, most pinapples planted in Taiwan belonged to the Golden Pineapple family. As the canned pineapple industry began to grow, other species including the Smooth Cayenne, Red Spain, Sarawak, and the Yellow Mauritius were introduced. During the Japanese colonial period, Taiwan became a large-scale producer of canned pineapple, turning out up to 1.6 million cases a year between 1938 and 1940, according to government data.
But since exports were largely limited to Japan and Japanese-occupied Manchuria (what today comprises the northeastern Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang), Taiwanese pineapple remained relatively unknown on the global market.
During World War II, Taiwan’s pineapple industry went into decline as most plantations were used to cultivate grains, while metal for cans was in short supply. “Metal that would have been used for canning instead was diverted for the war effort, so the pineapple industry collapsed,” says Lin of the Council of Agriculture. Taiwan’s production of canned pineapple fell to just 22,499 cases in 1945, or only 1.3% of the record yield in 1940.
Production began to pick up again in the early 1950s. By 1956, annual production volume had reached more than 1 million cases as Taiwan exported canned pineapple to the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan.
The island’s pineapple industry peaked in 1971 as annual production volume reached 4 million cases, the most in the world. Yet Taiwan would not hold the world’s pineapple production crown for long. With Taiwan’s transformation to an industrialized economy, the manufacturing sector boomed, drawing workers away from farms to the cities.
Meanwhile, from 1973 on, Southeast Asian countries moved into the pineapple cultivation business. Because their cost of labor was so low, they were able to undercut Taiwan on the global market with cheaper pineapple, notes Lin.
From the 1970s through the mid-2000s, Taiwan focused on the domestic market. Nobody can say exactly when the pineapple cake was born – some say it has more than a hundred years of history – but the growing surplus of available pineapple in 1970s Taiwan made it necessary to find ways to use up the supply.
Eventually, pastry chefs settled on the pineapple cake, with crumbly, buttery crust on the outside and a fruity jam – usually made of a combination of pineapple and winter melon – on the inside. Winter melon entered the recipe because it was cheaper than pineapple and made the cake filling more palatable. The jam made from the two fruits was less fibrous so it did not stick to the teeth and had a pleasant yellow color, yet retained the fragrance and flavor of pineapple.
The cakes are usually sold in boxes containing individual servings of 45-50 grams apiece, each in its own paper wrapping. One serving typically contains up to 200 calories.
In 1975, the Chia Te bakery was founded in Taipei. Over the next 30 years, Chia Te would emerge as one of the top Taiwanese pineapple cake makers. At the first Taipei Pineapple Cake Festival in 2006, the company’s original flavor pineapple cake won the Golden Champion award – the top prize at the festival. The following year, Chia Te’s creative pineapple cake took home the Golden Champion award.
Back-to-back first prizes helped Chia Te gain several government endorsements, raising its profile – and that of pineapple cake overall – considerably. In 2010, Taiwan’s Ministry of Econonic Affairs selected Chia Te products as a top food gift. The same year, the Taipei City government named Chia Te as one of the city’s best gift shops.
Pineapple cake aficionados say Chia Te’s pastries stand out for the value they offer consumers: high quality at affordable prices. Its products are highly sought-after by visiting tourists from China and Hong Kong, and long lines of local consumers can be found outside the Chia Te shop before the Chinese New Year and other major holidays.
Chia Te also offers a large variety of flavors, some blending other fruits with pineapple and others, like cranberry, strawberry, honeydew melon and walnut, containing no pineapple at all.
Reflecting the bakery’s international ambitions, a plug-in on its Chinese-language website permits the contents of each page to be translated into 90 other languages, including such unlikely choices as Maori, Yiddish, and Zulu.
With demand for pineapple cakes surging in recent years, vendors are flooding the market. One way to stand out in that crowded market is by focusing on the premium market segment, says Henry Ou, an expert in horticulture and founder of Taipei-based Manna Foods. Manna does not maintain its own brick-and-mortar retail outlet, but accepts orders online and also supplies specialty retailers on a wholesale basis.
Ou uses no chemicals or preservatives in his pineapple cake, one of the flagship products under the Manna Foods brand. “Companies use pesticides to make the pineapple-growing process more efficient and preservatives to make the cakes last longer,” he says. “But there is a tradeoff in terms of quality and safety.” By contrast, Manna’s pineapple cakes are handmade with top-quality ingredients, he says.
Ou’s recipe for pineapple cake calls for winter and early spring pineapples, which he says are tarter and more aromatic than the sweeter summer variants of the fruit. The pineapples are sourced from Aboriginal farmers in the mountains of Hualien, Taitung, and Pingtung. Another reason why Manna’s version is less sweet is that it is made with malt sugar instead of granulated sugar, and it omits the milk and butter that normally go into the pastry dough.
Like SunnyHills, Ou has removed winter melon from the recipe, offering a pastry filled with 100% pure pineapple jam. “I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to use winter melon in pineapple cake, but I choose not to,” he says.
That’s as important for branding as it is for taste. Cheap mass-market pineapple cake frequently contains more winter melon than pineapple.
Naturally, artisanal pastries filled with pure pineapple jam can be a bit dear. A box from Manna Foods retails for NT$600, about double the price of the mass-market product. While Taiwanese tend to find that too expensive, Ou says his pastries are popular with Japanese and South Korean tourists.
SunnyHills has also cultivated a large following with the Japanese. The company did so well with Japanese tourists that it decided to expand to the Land of the Rising Sun itself, opening a boutique in Tokyo’s Aoyama district in 2013.
It commissioned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to design the Aoyama boutique for NT$100 million (over US$3 million), and the renowned designer did not disappoint, creating a striking structure shaped like a bamboo basket with a wooden lattice exoskeleton. “Not many Taiwanese brands are able to open stores in Japan [which has one of the world’s most competitive consumer markets], so it’s a real point of distinction for us,” says K.J. Chen, who works in SunnyHills’ Brand Center.
The company makes most of its pineapple by hand in its Nantou factory and only turns to automated production at times of peak demand – usually during major holidays.
SunnyHills sees itself as an agribusiness that aims to help local farmers, Chen explains. “We work closely with Taiwanese farms and our goal is to boost the value of Taiwan’s agriculture sector,” he says.
The company stands out for its attention to branding, a discipline that has yet to penetrate the mainstream of Taiwan’s business culture. That means turning down opportunities to boost revenue if they have the potential to damage the SunnyHills name.
Most notably, SunnyHills does not work with Chinese tour operators. “We don’t offer commissions to tour operators, so of course, they don’t want to work with us,” Chen says.
However, that does not mean SunnyHills does not welcome Chinese tourists. “They are welcome to come on their own, and they do. But we don’t want large tour groups crowding into our stores; we aren’t trying to be a shopping mall,” he says.
Ultimately, “we want to show the world that Taiwan can produce premium products,” he concludes.
Chia Te Bakery Co.:
88 NanJing East Road, Section 5, Taipei.
No. 1, Alley 4, Lane 36, MinSheng East Road, Section 5, Taipei. Tel: 2760-0508. www.sunnyhills.com.tw