Ringing in the lunar new year, we talk the best of bao and the buns with the most fun in Wilson Chung’s beginner’s guide to the greatest hits of our Chinese bakeries.
Feb 02, 2014 1:00pm
Ringing in the lunar new year, we talk the best of bao and the buns with the most fun in Wilson Chung's beginner's guide to the greatest hits of our Chinese bakeries.
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Crisp dough strips in honey - sachima
Stories abound about why the Chinese name of this pastry relates to horses. Some say it involved a horse-riding general, Sa, and his love for the snack; others say it was (and still is) a popular snack at the racecourse in Hong Kong because its pronunciation is similar to the Cantonese word meaning "horse-racing gamester". At any rate, This treat is made from thin strips of deep-fried dough (not unlike Rice Krispies) bound by honey or maltose syrup. Serve them cut into small squares as petits fours, or slice into two thin rectangles and fill with scoops of ice-cream (green tea and taro flavours work well) for an Asian take on an ice-cream sandwich.
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Egg tart - daan
One of the enduring treats of the Chinese bakery (and yum cha), the eggy and rich yet light egg tart, comes in both shortcrust and puff-pastry variants, both of which have avid fans. In either case, choose tarts that look smooth and consistent in colour across the top, with no sagging in the pastry. If you give the tart a gentle shake the filling should still wobble. For my money, the puff pastry trumps the short version, with the flakiness in the pastry contrasting nicely with the smooth custard. Eat as is, or dust with icing sugar and caramelise with a blowtorch to offset the sweetness.
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Fried glutinous rice balls - jin deui
Balls of glutinous rice dough, often filled with a sweet red bean or lotus-seed paste, are rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried to make a crunchy Chinese-style doughnut. The glutinous rice gives this pastry a pleasant chewiness. They're best accompanied by a cup of green or oolong tea to cut the fat. To dress them up for dessert, halve them and top with green tea-infused cream and grated dark chocolate.
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Chicken-tail buns - gai mei bao
Some say they're called cocktail or chicken tail buns because the filling was traditionally a "cocktail" of day-old buns and sugar recast by bakers for the next day's customers. The cocktail of ingredients is now closer to coconut frangipane, which gives the buns a sweetness that is very easy to enjoy. Choose plump buns that are still joined side by side on the tray, signifying freshness. For an easy afternoon-tea treat, cut each bun into thirds and toast them before slathering generously with butter, or halve them lengthways, dip into an egg, milk and sugar bath then pan-fry for Chinese-style French toast.
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Sausage buns - cheung zai bao
The sausage bun is an example of a kind of elegance in simplicity: a hot dog-style pork sausage encased in dough and baked. A traditional after-school snack for Hong Kong kids, the sausage bun can be given a modern turn by being warmed, split and topped with caramelised spring onions and shredded Chinese preserved vegetables for an instant hot dog that'll give any food truck a run for its money. As a buyer, look for light golden buns with a sausage that looks "tight" in the bun; as the bun stales, the bread will shrink away from the sausage.
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Pineapple buns - bo lo bao
So named because its crisp top resembles the top of a pineapple and not because it actually contains pineapple, the pineapple bun is a Chinese bakery staple and a good one is generally an indicator the bakery is the real deal. The topping, made from a mix of butter, eggs, sugar and, traditionally, lard, goes on top of a yeast dough and bakes to crisp golden deliciousness after a short stint in the oven. Look for buns with a thick golden top and toast them lightly before splitting them open and adding slices of braised pork belly, some spring onion and a good dollop of Sriracha mayonnaise for a memorable Asian-style burger.
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Barbecue pork pastry - char siu sou
Char siu is of course the red barbecue pork seen hanging in windows across Chinatown. In a char siu sou, this barbecue pork is wrapped in a sou, or savoury pastry. To achieve the flakiness in the pastry, two different pastry doughs (one water-based and made with lard or butter, the other a short dough) are layered around the cooked pork filling. This casing is then glazed with honey or maltose and the pastry parcel is cooked in the oven. Choose those with a shiny, unbroken top that feel heavy for their size. They're good as is with a cup of milky Hong Kong-style tea for a morning pick-me-up or warm and topped with shiitake mushrooms pan-fried in butter and dark soy sauce for an easy dinner-party starter.