Header photo credit: Ophelia Lau
There’s something strangely alluring about Hong Kong bakeries. I’m not talking about chain bakeries that sell dry buns in plastic packaging – no, thank you – but small, local bakeries with their massive (likely rusty) metal pans, scribbled placards and chaotic back kitchens. The aroma of freshly baked bread draws us in, then we gape in awe at the mouth-watering array of sinful creations on display, from pineapple buns flaunting their golden tops to red-bean-filled mochi balls seducing us with their coconut feathers. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the familiar clang of pans, tongs and trays and the not-too-amicable lady behind the counter.
Perhaps this is the real Hong Kong – the vibrancy, the bustle, the humble yet delicious food. Have a read of how your favourite bakery treats came to be. Mm sai mm goi.
Pineapple bun (菠蘿包 boh1 loh4 baau1)
Photo credit: Sam the Local
Dubbed by the government in 2014 a part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage, pineapple buns have a special place in Hong Kongers’ hearts. Pillowy buns topped with a beautifully cracked crust, they are either enjoyed on their own or stuffed with a slab of butter (pictured above), red bean paste, shredded coconut or even barbecued pork (char siu). Despite their name, they contain no pineapple – they merely look like pineapples with their chequered tops.
In the late 1940s, Hong Kong-style cafés called cha chaan tengs grew in popularity, driving bakers to be creative with their products in order to beat the competition. Seeing that Hong Kongers have a penchant for sweets, a baker was inspired to turn a savoury dough sweet; he mixed flour, sugar, lard and ammonia to form a dough and baked it on top of bread. The resulting product was fragrant, crunchy and sweet – no wonder it was such a big hit, remaining one of Hong Kongers’ afternoon tea staples to this day.
Egg tart (蛋撻 daan6 taat1)
Photo credit: Toshiba
The Cantonese cousin of English custard tarts, egg tarts come in many variations. The tart base is either made with shortcrust pastry (more commonly found at bakeries) or puff pastry (often seen at dim sum restaurants) – and, yes, the long-standing debate on which tart base is superior remains unresolved.
These yellow gems originated in Guangzhou in the early 20th century, when Chinese interaction with Britain grew. Pastry chefs at Western department stores were required to come up with new pastries to boost their business. Egg tarts, a combination of steamed egg pudding and lard-based puff pastry, were thus born as a “weekly special”. They graced Hong Kong in the 1940s but were only served at high-end restaurants in the beginning. It wasn’t until the 1960s that they took Hong Kong society by storm. Hong Kong egg tarts are typically smaller in size compared to those of Guangzhou. In 2014, the technique of egg tart production was included as part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage.
Wife cake (老婆餅 lou5 po4 beng2)
Photo credit: Pinkoi
Candied winter-melon mash? The filling of wife cakes may sound unappealing, but trust us when we say that wife cakes are delicious, especially fresh out of the oven. Combined with glutinous rice flour, the filling is soft yet chewy (almost like mochi) and pairs perfectly with the flaky pastry crust.
The intriguing name has many legends surrounding its origin. Some say there was an old man who fell ill to a disease in Imperial China, and his daughter-in-law sold herself as a slave in exchange for money to treat him. The husband then created these pastries and sold them on the street in memory of his wife.
My favourite legend involves a wife so lazy that she refused to cook for herself. Her husband had to be away on a business trip and there was no one to feed her, so he made a winter-melon-paste pastry with a large hole in the middle to hang around his wife’s neck. Tragically, the wife starved to death because she did not turn her head around to eat the rest of the pastry…
Sachima (馬仔 maa5 zai2）
Photo credit: family.ESDlife
Talk about a guilty pleasure! Sachimas are strands of fluffy fried batter coated with sugar syrup and pressed into a block. Yes, they taste as heavenly as they sound. Similar in texture to Rice Krispies Treats, they are chewy and caramelly with a satisfying crunch. You often find them sprinkled with sesame seeds or raisins.
Sachimas come from Manchu cuisine and were often used by monks as a sacrifice. You may wonder why the Cantonese name of sachima translates directly to “little horse” – rumour has it that you will win at horse betting if you eat a sachima beforehand!
Cocktail bun (雞尾包 gai1 mei5 baau1)
Photo credit: Cook1Cook
Another traditional Hong Kong-style bread, cocktail buns resemble soft, buttery brioche stuffed with a sweet coconut filling and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
It’s believed that the filling was inspired by leftovers. In the post-war 1950s, a cha chaan teng owner didn’t want to waste food and crushed up some leftover bread together with sugar to make a filling. Since the hotchpotch consisted of many different types of bread, it reminded people of a “cocktail”, hence the name. The filling evolved slowly to include shredded coconut and butter, becoming the cocktail bun we know and love today.
Chicken pot pie (雞批 gai1 pai1)
Photo credit: German Pool
Don’t mistake this Hong Kong classic for a Western-style chicken pot pie! Hong Kong-style chicken pot pies are served in small aluminium cases and carved on top with a criss-cross pattern. While they are indeed inspired by British chicken pies and used to only be served at high-end spots like Lane Crawford and the Imperial Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, they rose quickly in popularity amongst the general public.
However, Hong Kong-style chicken pot pies have a thicker and less aromatic sauce than their British counterparts. The Western version uses a roux base, while Hong Kong chefs use cornflour, and the pastry is much sweeter here. The meat used is also solely chicken drumstick, not breast, since Hong Kong people prefer silkier meats. The seasoning is also different. Chinese seasonings such as Shaoxing wine and soy sauce are often added. Oh, and the biggest difference of all? Chicken pot pies are often consumed as a meal in the West, while Hong Kongers love to pair their pies with milk tea as an afternoon snack.
Paper-wrapped cake (紙包蛋糕 ji2 baau1 daan6 gou1)
Photo credit: Cook1Cook
These cakes may not be particularly showstopping, but their buttery aroma and melt-in-the-mouth texture are enough to capture Hong Kongers’ hearts. Sold in individual portions and wrapped in parchment, they are perfect for an on-the-go afternoon treat. Don’t their golden tops look inviting?
In the 1950s, the general public was not affluent enough to afford Western-style cakes, mainly because flour and butter were expensive ingredients, so some cha chaen tengs created smaller portions of sponge cakes using cheaper local ingredients. Even then, paper-wrapped cakes were still expensive relative to other snacks such as Chinese fried dough sticks (油炸鬼), so they weren’t prevalent amongst the working class until the 1960s. After Hong Kong the economy picked up though, they immediately became one of the most popular snacks around town.
Red bean pudding (缽仔糕 but3 zai2 gou1)
Photo credit: Ming Pao
Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find red bean puddings in larger Hong Kong bakeries these days – try your luck at more traditional bakeries, often nestled in older districts. These puddings are steamed in small ceramic bowls and served on skewers. Glossy and studded with red beans, they are lightly sweetened with rock sugar.
Red bean puddings are said to have originated in Kaiping, Guangdong. Back then, people wanted to make snacks that were filling yet portable enough to bring out to the farm. They came up with the idea of making glutinous rice cakes and steaming them in ceramic bowls – hence the Chinese name of 缽仔, which translates directly to “ceramic bowl”. Red beans were added by later generations to improve the texture and taste.