Before I arrive at Fuwa Fuwa, a pancake cafe in Central London, I encounter death. On my cycle ride over, I see (and hear … *shudder*) a squirrel get flattened under the wheel of a van as the driver obliviously accelerates. Clearly, this isn’t the ideal start to the day, so I’m happy to enter a shop whose sole purpose is to be comforting. Fuwa Fuwa has an entire wall covered in white fluff to mimic clouds. Rows of dollopy pancakes are lined up, ready to serve. I may have come face-to-face with mortality this morning, but at least now I’m in heaven.
Fuwa Fuwa, founded last year by Lee Tieu, is the first place in the UK to offer the Instagram-famous soufflé pancakes—a Japanese dessert defined by its thick, towering structure and wobbly consistency (official term). You’ve certainly seen them on your feed, dusted with icing sugar and piled high with whipped cream, fruit, and a whole variety of toppings. On the menu at Fuwa Fuwa, you’ll find versions with honeycomb butter or blueberry and yuzu cheesecake, each one as jiggly as the last. While the trend for this kind of heavily aerated dessert originated in Japan, the appreciation of it is now global: the hashtag #soufflepancakes has been used 45,126 times on Instagram, with photos shared everywhere from New York to Tainan, and now, London.
“I saw [the dish] a couple of years back, in Japan, and I've always been a big fan of pancakes,” Tieu tells me at his cafe in Bloomsbury, where I’ve come a few weeks before Pancake Day. “The kids loved it, and it's something we used to do together on Sunday morning for breakfast.”
From those weekend morning pancakes, Tieu, whose background is in IT rather than desserts, decided to venture into food.
“I thought, ‘Let's give it a go,’” he explains. “So we tested it out at Hyper Japan [a Japanese culture festival in London], and we had queues for two or three hours.”
Confirming that the demand was there for soufflé pancakes, Tieu launched Fuwa Fuwa as a three-month pop-up at a shopping centre in East London, before opening the permanent cafe in 2018.
It’s a Tuesday lunchtime when I visit, so the cafe isn’t rammed, which is helpful when making a dish that takes so much time and skill. Each pancake requires 20 minutes on a griddle and involves meticulous temperature management, and a careful hand to flip the teetering cakes.
“It took me nine months to really get [the soufflé pancake texture] to where we are,” explains Tieu. “They're hard to perfect and make. You need to really master the craft before you can really push it out to market. Even to this day, with our staff, getting them up to speed is very difficult—it can take them a good six to eight weeks to master the technique.”
As we’re talking, my order arrives. Two precious, cushiony mounds of pancake are placed in front of me, with a round disc of honeycomb butter melting on the top. The sensation of cutting into the pancake is like slicing through whipped cream or mousse—there’s very little resistance. The flavour isn’t overly sweet, and the texture incredibly satisfying. I almost eat two portions.
So, how do you make these dream-like cakes? The secret, Tieu tells me, is exactly that—a secret. I push for more information, but he won’t budge. I offer him my theories, all cultivated after many Sunday morning attempts at fat, American-style pancakes. Is it an extensive whisking time? Partly, he says. Bicarbonate of soda and some sort of apple cider vinegar? Nope. Gelatin? No. Hm.
“We have a few special ingredients we can't disclose,” he says, “but it's all about the timing, temperature, and technique.”
“The hardest thing is consistency,” he continues. “There are so many variables in the batter, in the timing, and in the temperature. The griddles fluctuate in heat so you have to understand at what point to lay down the batters, at what point to flip.”
Tieu won’t even reveal the flour they use at Fuwa Fuwa (“A special blend of flours that does contain wheat” is his cryptic answer.) I do get one ingredient out of him: “Good quality eggs are also very important.”
After a little research, and painfully scrolling through badly formatted food blogs, it appears that mayonnaise may be the key to a large, soufflé pancake like those served at Fuwa Fuwa (something which caused some controversy online when first suggested by a “lifehack” Twitter account). The egg and oil emulsion holds the batter together, allowing for a more towering structure. Having a good electric whisk, a consistent heat, and the patience of a saint also helps, I’d assume.
In the end, however, the secret will remain with Tieu. Mystery floofyness aside, why does he think soufflé pancakes are such a popular new dish?
“It’s because they're unique, no one's ever seen them before,” says Tieu. “Everyone's used to the American style buttermilk pancakes, or French crêpe.”
“Then there's the theatre behind [them], with the cooking, and the flipping, and the jiggling,” he adds. “It's all good fun.”
I’m not sure making the pancakes—with the weeks of learning, extensive ingredient research, and lengthy cooking time is that much fun. But I can confirm: eating them certainly is.