- Ingredients in a pineapple cake from Shou Tian Pin. Click to enlarge!
Everything I know about the dangers of bringing foreign produce back into the US I've learned from EVA Air's in-flight landing video from the early '90s. I don't remember much about it because when I was seven years old I didn't have the foresight to take notes about something I might blog about over two decades later. But, hell, who needs "research"? I'll just attempt to piece together my questionably accurate memories for your "benefit."
I'm 100 percent sure the video was animated. I'm less sure about the other parts. At some point in the video, an airplane lands at an airport. (Yeah, Robyn, you got dis.) Then at some point after that, the passengers go through customs and immigration. Then some nefarious but otherwise normal-looking passenger (...it could be you) knowingly sneaks their fruit past customs. Then the video shows what happens if you don't declare your fruits and vegetables and other contraband perishables, which is this: One stowaway insect on that seemingly innocent piece of fruit multiplies into a tsunami of insects whose only purpose in life is to ravage whatever continuous landmass dares to lie in its way, a purpose it fulfills in a matter of seconds thanks to the collective power of a bajillion weaponized appetites. Congratulations, you destroyed America (and probably the rest of North America down through South America). And it only cost you one wax apple.
I was bummed out when I discovered that EVA Air doesn't show this video anymore, nor any other video that traumatizes children through the apocalyptic potential of undeclared produce. But I still think of it in regards to bringing foreign foods back to the US. That's partially why I didn't shove a Taiwanese pineapple (officially considered the best kind of pineapple on Earth, in my biased opinion) into my luggage, as much as I wish I could have. Also, I didn't want to find out what undeclared-produce prison is like.
- All the luggage I brought back to the US after my ten-month stay in Taiwan: two check-in luggages, laptop bag, camera bag, and pineapple cake bag containing 30 pineapple cakes.
Instead, I brought home 30 pineapple cakes from my favorite pineapple cake shop, which is sort of like bringing home a pineapple that has been dismembered and cooked into a mash and then inserted into a new skin that's made of butter and flour and then formed into single-serving bricks. So, you know, same thing.
Without any scientific evidence to back me up, I'd say that pineapple cakes, or 鳳梨酥 (fènglí sū), are Taiwan's most famous pastry as well as Taiwan's most popular souvenir, edible or otherwise. These small single-serving "cakes" usually come in the form of square or rectangular bricks whose crumbly shortbread crusts are filled with thick pineapple-flavored paste. (Less common but more whimsical shapes include hearts, the island of Taiwan, and cat heads. Fillings may also be complemented with nuts, dried egg yolks, and dried fruit.)
Pineapple cakes hit all the major points for optimal gift-ability:
- They're easy to transport without risk of incurring much structural damage.
- They're often individually wrapped and/or packed in attractive boxes that say "I AM A SPECIAL GIFT AND THUS YOU ARE A SPECIAL PERSON."
- They have a simple but unique flavor that should appeal to just about all humans with or without functioning taste buds.
The main downside is that the freshest brands only have a shelf life of a week or two. Some brands have shelf lives that last for months, but probably at the expense of flavor.
Although only a handful of pineapple cake brands tend to dominate "best-of" lists—namely SunnyHills and Chia Te—you probably have more choices for awesome pineapple cakes now than during any other time in pineapple cake history. WE ARE LIVING IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF PINEAPPLE CAKES! ...Or so I'm guessing. I haven't tried 'em all. Sure, this list of eight famous pineapple cake brands may seem manageable, but the recommendations don't stop there. They also don't stop here. And while I'm not stopping, let's tack on a few years of winners from Taipei's annual Pineapple Cake Festival. The list of worthwhile pineapple cakes goes on. Until it ends. But by the time it ends, the universe will just add more to it. You see the problem here?
Unless it's your life's purposes to find the best pineapple cakes in existence, you may as well stop searching after you find your favorite one. That's why I didn't try that many pineapple cakes when I lived in Taiwan—I found my favorite pineapple cake early on. (If you're wondering, "Robyn, how did you know it was your favorite pineapple cake if you didn't try that many different kinds beforehand?" my answer is, that's a fair question, and I'm just gonna trail off a bit because I don't have a good answer and maybe you'll stop reading if this font is small enough.)
Shou Tian Pin (手天品), home of my favorite pineapple cakes, is easy to miss. There's no English signage, no windows bursting with baked goods, and the decor is pretty bare bones. Almost every time—if not every time—I've been there, my friends and I have been the only customers. Nothing about it yells "I AM A MAGICAL PINEAPPLE CAKE KITCHEN." Which is why I'm writing this post—to virtually yell at you on the shop's behalf. (If you can read Chinese, the name of the shop may seem a bit less humble than the rest of the shop. According to my mom, 手天品 can translate to "handmade excellent stuff" or "heavenly handmade items." ...It's one of those things that sounds better in Chinese.)
Shou Tian Pin make two kinds of pineapple cakes: regular (NT$32) and with chopped walnuts (NT$35). The base filling is made with winter melon, pineapple, maltose, sugar, and butter, and the crust is made of unbleached flour, sugar, antibiotic-free eggs, and European butter. There are no bells or whistles or fancy hats here—each pineapple cake is plainly wrapped in an unlabeled, clear plastic bag. But if you want something a little extra for gifting purposes, Shou Tian Pin also sell sturdy gift boxes designed to hold the pineapple cakes nice 'n snuggly.
You may notice that the first ingredient of the pineapple cake is not pineapple. Subsequently, you may feel compelled to declare with a dramatic thrusting of your index finger in my general direction, "There's an ingredient missing on that list—and that ingredient is named DECEPTION!" This is a reasonable reaction. And there's a reasonable explanation, one that lies behind many things that don't seem to make sense: tradition. Not the tradition of "giving pastries deceitful names" (which is not a tradition), but the tradition of making pineapple cake filling with a mixture of pineapple and winter melon. As the story that I just made up goes, a bunch of years ago someone figured out "Hey, this pineapple mash tastes better if I add winter melon mash." And people have been tweaking the recipe ever since in the search for the perfect flavor.
Or in the search for saving money regardless of the flavor. Adding winter melon to pineapple cakes is regarded by some as a major cost-cutting measure and a potential sign of low quality. Some people might look down on the pineapple-winter melon combo for the latter reason and prefer to eat pineapple cakes made only with pineapple.
If you'd rather buy pineapple cakes made with just pineapple, you're in luck. My impression is that there has never been a better time than now to buy pineapple-only pineapple cakes. According to this article from City543, making pineapple cakes without winter melon has become more popular in recent years in line with the rising popularity of food products with fewer additives and more "natural" ingredients. These kinds of pineapple cakes are usually labeled as 土鳳梨酥 (tǔ fènglí sū) or 純鳳梨酥 (chún fènglí sū). 純鳳梨酥 means "pure/genuine pineapple cake". As for for 土鳳梨酥, my Taiwanese friend Hsupeng explained to me that 土鳳梨 is a specific breed of pineapple whose flavor is more tart than typical pineapples, but that the name 土鳳梨 does not necessarily mean the pineapple cake is only made with that kind pineapple. As the popularity of 純鳳梨酥 has grown, the name has come to refer to any pineapple cake that doesn't use winter melon because the first popular kind of 純鳳梨酥 was made with 土鳳梨. This is one possible explanation, at least. If anyone has a different story behind these names, please let me know.
Having tried some of these pineapple-only pineapple cakes, I've found that I prefer the more traditional winter melon-pineapple combo. Pineapple-only filling tends to be more tart and robustly flavored, as well as more fibrous than their less "pure" brethren. These aren't bad qualities by any means—they just make for a different kind of pineapple cake that you may or may not prefer.
But back to Shou Tian Pin. They hit just the right balance with their filling. Its flavor is mellow and just sweet enough, with a smooth, jammy, texture that isn't too thick. If you're like me, you'll prefer the walnut-enhanced version with its added nuttiness and crunch. The filling is encased in a light, almost meltingly buttery crust that's just as good as the filling, perhaps even better.
One sort of downside to these pineapple cakes is that they have a shelf life of about 10 to 14 days, which isn't the largest window of time for giving out as gifts to people. And two weeks might be pushing it, unless you want to eat a soulless pineapple cake husk. Having eaten a mildly aged Shou Tian Pin pineapple cake that my dad shipped to me from Taiwan, I can attest that time is not their friend. You should eat/distribute these pineapple cakes as soon as you can.
- Other goods from Shou Tian Pin: a pineapple bun, a bag of cake scraps (beautifully modeled by Xiangtai), packs of cookies, and bottles of almond milk.
Shou Tian Pin offers more than pineapple cakes. The shop is primarily a bakery that emphasizes its use of minimally-processed, high-quality ingredients—local if possible—in a range of cookies, cakes, and breads. (Besides their pineapple cakes, I'm a fan of their mini chocolate cakes, brownies, and bags of cake scraps. I find something irrationally satisfying about eating cake scraps, as though I personally saved the cake from a dark fate in the bowels of a trash can, like the selfless cake-eating hero I am.) They also sell a small selection of "natural" food products like milk, yogurt, eggs, tomatoes, olive oil, and salt. Their pineapple cakes are particularly popular though, especially with Japanese tourists who want to bring them back home as gifts.
Shou Tian Pin may not make it to the top of pineapple cake "best of" lists, but I can't imagine finding a pineapple cake I like more and want to share with other people. I estimate that I've given away about 50 pineapple cakes to friends and family. I've been on the receiving end as well. The night before my wedding, my friend Charlotte—the friend who introduced me to Shou Tian Pin in the first place—surprised me with a gift box of my favorite pineapple cakes, to which I may have responded something like this:
OH MY GAAAWD AHH AAHAHAHWAAAA I LUV U [weeps]
[turns to Charlotte] OH, HI CHARLOTTE, I LUV U TOO.
If you're thinking, "Hey Robyn, you appear to have an irrationally strong affinity for these pineapple cakes that makes me question whether I can trust your judgement," you're right. I don't even trust my own judgement. Like, sometimes I don't know if I have to pee or not.
Anyway. The way I react to things I really like is comparable to the way this dog reacts to a human-sized version of his favorite toy, except replace the licking and pouncing with shrieking and flailing. I attribute my happy puppy feelings towards these pineapple cakes to my rosy memories of living in Taipei and the neighborhood I lived in. Shou Tian Pin was located just a few blocks from my apartment, and even closer to my school, the Mandarin Training Center at NTNU. Shou Tian Pin was there for my friends and me whenever we wanted to treat ourselves for a job (job = learning Mandarin) well done (well done = we hadn't failed our classes yet). Like the time Charlotte and I stopped by for a pineapple cake treat and roughly 8.6 seconds after we had left the shop, I turned around while we were walking down the street's narrow sidewalk to see that most of Charlotte's pineapple cake had magically disappeared into her face, a face that said, "Oh......hehe......you weren't supposed to see that."
So my love for Shou Tian Pin's pineapple cakes isn't just about the cakes themselves. It's about my friend/hero Charlotte. It's about seeing people's happy faces when I give them pineapple cake gifts. It's about holding each and every empty pineapple cake wrapper open over my open maw and tapping out every last buttery crumb into my mouth where it belongs. It's about the satisfaction of lugging a baby-sized shopping bag of pineapple cakes back to my apartment. It's about good memories in Taipei, memories you may never be able to relate to.
...And the pineapple cakes taste good, probably.
Shou Tian Pin (手天品)
No. 188-1, Chaozhou St, Da'an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106 (map)