Kasutera

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Kasutera

An age-old tale bringing two cultures together in the most delicious way.

Words: Soraia Martins Photography: Nathalie Márquez Courtney

KASUTERA

The story of this virtually peerless sponge cake is one that goes back to the 16th century, when the first Westerners, meaning us, Portuguese explorers, arrived in Japan.

Objects and assorted confectionery were their gifts of choice to the Japanese, among which was the castella — an exquisite sponge cake that left them head over heels.

The recipe spread out quickly and soon became a Japanese staple under the new moniker kasutera. When the city of Nagasaki was founded, in 1571, bakeries making and selling kasutera emerged, some of which still exist today.

Four centuries later, and the castella sponge cake is back in Lisbon thanks to Paulo and Tomoko, Portuguese and Japanese deepening ties once again, but this time fuelled by love, with Castella do Paulo, a tiny place near Praça do Comércio. The success of the café transcended what they thought was possible, as Paulo had lived in Kyoto for several years, where he met Tomoko, refining recipes and learning everything that was to learn about this mouth-watering art.

After a couple of years, they decided to close doors and go back to Japan, leaving the famous castella recipe with neighbours and friends, Tiago Cabral Ferreira and Ingrid Correia, since Tiago’s family owns Conserveira de Lisboa and Paulo trusted them to keep the story of castella alive.

 

«It was definitely a quick decision to make», Ingrid tells us. She was taking her Master’s in Cognitive Sciences when Tiago asked her if she was willing to try and learn Paulo’s recipe and see where it would go. She said yes.

«First, I learned the recipe and all its details and quibbles for about four months, before Paulo went back to Japan. But then Tiago and I thought it wasn’t enough, so I left everything behind and got in a Culinary Arts programme at the Hotel and Tourism School of Lisbon for a year and a half to improve and cement what I knew».

People are extremely curious about what we do here, especially because the process is so different from our own.

As Ingrid polished up on her pastry skills, they started selling castella sponge cake at Conserveira de Lisboa and restaurants like Kampai and Go Juu, and through mailing list, letting know their loyal customers «when a fresh batch would be out so they could get it at the store». Meanwhile, their eagerness to see this castella empire take off got them looking for a more definite space in Lisbon, and they found this tiny former bakery at one of the most thriving neighbourhoods in Lisbon, where old meets new in a genuine way, Poço dos Negros being the exact address for their tasty venture.

«I was walking by and saw this little place to rent and decided we should take a look. We immediately realised this would be the perfect choice for us. This was early 2017. We knew we had to be in Lisbon to have people coming in and buying our product. But this place was in need of deep construction work, so it took us almost a year to open. The thing we loved the most about this time is that we were able to see how the neighbourhood was evolving, and we were part of it», Ingrid confides.

Sanda Vuckovic
“The thing we loved the most about this time is that we were able to see how the neighbourhood was evolving, and we were part of it.”

The recipe was definitely theirs, but the name had to go, as the sponge cake could no longer be Paulo’s castella. They were looking for a new whole new image, something with which they could identify with and keep the tradition alive at the same time. With the help of MUSA WORK LAB, they went full circle and adopted the name Kasutera, which means castella in Japanese.

The space is indeed tiny, but charming and full of character. With a small display window lurking out on the street, usually decorated according to a theme or holiday, the first step you take inside is a quick trip to the far east and its intrinsically pleasant and simple tastes.

The story of this virtually peerless sponge cake is one that goes back to the 16th century, when the first Westerners, meaning us, Portuguese explorers, arrived in Japan.

The counter gives way to a wooden door with see-through glass where you can get a glimpse of the kitchen and production area, so to speak, where Bruno was taking care of another batch of sponge cake when we came in. «People are extremely curious about what we do here, especially because the process is so different from our own sponge cake’s. It’s been a challenge so far, that’s for sure. If we take a closer look, it’s such a traditional product for us that exists from north to south in distinct shapes and delicious ways. This is just another one, but it’s not just another one. It’s so peculiar, even if it’s just its presentation and what it means.»

«Thanks to this uniqueness, people end up coming back and spreading the word, but there are a lot of sceptics who think this is some kind of hip trend and that we’re trying to reinvent the sponge cake, when in fact it’s an age-old tale. We usually tell the story of how the Japanese sponge cake was something that Portuguese explorers took to Japan many centuries ago, and how it came to be what it is today».

Let’s break it down: 6 kg of dough made with eggs, sugar, flour, and honey — depending on the version it’s being made, green tea and cocoa is added later — go in the oven on a wooden tray. The batter has to be stirred three times while still in the oven and then rest for another six hours.

In the end, we get a batch of Kasutera sponge cakes that are wrapped up and stamped by them, one by one. A joyful outcome for such a scrumptious story.

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