Japanese cheesecakes: To be or not to be

Updated 01 Jun, 2019 07:38pm

A few days ago I almost fell for Uncle Tetsu. Both literally and figuratively. I tripped on a small step leading up to the cafe and afterwards was quite enthralled by the open kitchen and lovely, warm interior. But it didn’t taste as good as it looked. Uncle Tetsu is a new franchise in Lahore. It started in 1990 in Japan but has gotten enough traction that my sister who lives in Canada has not only had it, but is quite fond of it. 

The cafe is spacious with seating both inside and outside, and there are coffee and tea options to go along with cheesecakes, not to mention very palatable cheese sticks. It was all very inviting, very pleasing to the eye.

When I started on my first Japanese cheesecake I liked how dry, soft and fluffy it was. Cheesecakes can be a bit mushy at times but this was a clean break from pulp or cream. They also made it right in front of me which is always a plus. But halfway through inhaling this cheesecake I realised something else too — how utterly bland it was. 

Maybe bland is not the right word. It was eggy. I mean all cheesecakes are eggy but this was eggy in not a good way. This was eggy without being anything else along with it. Think scrambled eggs without any condiments. Which leaves one wanting; wanting some sugar, wanting some cream, wanting some pizzazz and, before long, wanting something else. 

Don’t get me wrong. In isolation, a Japanese cheesecake is not bad. I just don’t think it is going to be a hit in Lahore considering that our idea of desserts is that you should be diabetic by the time you are finished. 

The Japanese are weaned on seafood and ramen. Ramen also has fewer condiments sprinkled on top of the noodles. Unlike, say, a hot and spicy pad thai. 

We all know the Japanese have strange eating habits. They eat raw, uncooked fish, for heaven’s sake. So I can imagine some man called Tetsu thought: “This cheesecake thing is too sweet, let us remove the sugar and most of the cheese. Let us add more eggs, a pinch of yolk here, a smattering of whites there. Did I say add more eggs? Good, now add another layer of eggs on top of the egg batter. There it is perfect. Now you can’t taste anything else.” 

I think Uncle Tetsu is going to remain a niche, hipster place to come to — a place where you take more pictures for Instagram purposes than you consume food. Which is pretty much what I did and left half the cake unfinished. 

The conventional cheesecakes themselves are niche, hipster things to consume in Lahore. I mean my mother loves them but my mother is a bit of a hipster too. 

As a bona fide Lahori guy, I was late to the cheesecake party to begin with. I was more of a ‘give-me-nihari-for-dessert-too’ person. Cakes were just something you cut open and then ignored at birthdays. 

I mean, it took me years to learn that mud cakes aren’t made from mud. And that red velvet is actually chocolate. You can shake your heads and smirk all you want but I feel like I represent middle-class Lahori cake appetites pretty well: it is a niche, elite hobby until Gourmet Foods starts making them. But Gourmet is still busy making plain sponge cakes. 

There were barely a handful of cake names I remembered growing up. I remember black forest was really popular, to the point where everything remotely dark was black forest. Fudge was black forest, truffle was black forest, some chocolate sitting close to baking soda was also black forest. 

Everything that wasn’t black forest was a pineapple cake. 

Then came the plain cakes that took over the cake market and are still ubiquitous, sent as gifts to people you don’t like. Cakes so simple they feel like they are just some batter that has been inflated, possibly with a bicycle pump. The Japanese cheesecake definitely reminds me of those. 

The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.

The article was published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.