A plain reminder of life's home-baked pleasures
Made with eggs, flour, sugar and oil or lard, the pale, round cakes called gwong so beng are believed to have been invented by Fang Xianfu, a high-ranking official in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Fang hailed from a humble background, and his father died before he was born, forcing his mother to raise him on meagre funds. Despite these setbacks, he went on to pass the notoriously difficult imperial examinations and was relocated to the emperor's court in the capital. However, he was fiercely proud of his hometown of Xiqiao in Guangdong province.
One day, Fang woke up early and, after washing and dressing, was ready for breakfast. However, his cook was still asleep, and as he wanted to arrive at court early that day, he went to the kitchen himself. All he could find was flour, sugar and eggs, so he mixed the ingredients together to make a dough and put it in an oven that was still warm from the previous night.
The low temperature dried out the dough, but the crust remained very pale. Nonetheless, it cooked and kept its shape, so Fang wrapped it up and headed to work. When he took it out, his colleagues asked what smelled so good, and he proudly replied: 'Xiqiao cake.'
The name is still used in Xiqiao, but elsewhere it's known as gwong so beng (or guang su bing in Putonghua), which means 'plain cake'. Its dryness (hence resistance to mould) is a virtue. It is said that several cakes were strung together and given to soldiers to hang around their necks for a quick repast during battles. Today, the same treat is offered to hardworking students who toil away day and night.