There’s something alluring and deeply nostalgic about small, local Hong Kong bakeries with their massive metal pans, scribbled placards and chaotic back kitchens. The aroma of freshly baked bread draws the crowds to consider the mouth-watering array of fragrant creations on display. This is a different side of Hong Kong – the vibrancy without the fanfare and the humble yet delicious food.

You might have tried the the famous BBQ pork bun (char siu bao) or egg tart (daan taat), but do you know about their equally beloved cousins?

Pineapple bun (菠蘿包)

The pineapple bun (bolo bao; 菠蘿包) is a soft baked bun with a characteristic cracked yellow or golden topping. However, this mixed-texture bun does not contain any pineapple or pineapple flavouring, and the name comes from the topping’s resemblance to the tropical fruit. The sweet crust is traditionally made with lard (but now usually with butter), sugar, egg yolk and flour and is rolled and draped on top of the bun prior to baking, resulting in a crumbly, golden crust that contrasts with the light, airy bao underneath.

At cafés, the pineapple bun is most often served warm with a thick slice of cold butter in the middle (bolo yau; 菠萝油) alongside a cup of Hong Kong’s famous milk tea. Additional pineapple bun variations include versions with custard, coconut, red bean or char siu fillings.

The pineapple bun is so important that the Hong Kong Government recognised the pineapple bun-making technique as a valuable traditional craftsmanship skill in 2014, listing it in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Hong Kong.

Wife cake (老婆餅)

Wife cake (老婆餅)

Also known as “sweetheart cake”, a wife cakes is a flat, pancake-like pastry filled traditionally with a candied winter-melon mash. Delicious fresh from the oven, the melon filling is soft yet chewy (similar to mochi), contrasting with the flaky pastry, which is made in the traditional Cantonese style of repeatedly folding two types of dough in layers.

There are many stories around the origin of the intriguing name. 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. Her husband then created these pastries and sold them on the street to honour his wife, and they became so popular he was able to buy her back.

Sachima (沙琪瑪 or 馬仔)

Hong Kong Sachima 馬仔, courtesy of mrspskitchen.net

Sachima originates from the cuisine of Manchuria, which is the historical name for a region that now covers mostly north-east China. Long, thin strands of fluffy, fried batter are coated with sugar syrup and pressed into a block to form the sweet snack. They are similar in texture to Rice Krispies Treats, chewy and caramelly but with a satisfying crunch, and they are often sprinkled with sesame seeds.

The alternative Chinese term for sachima is 馬仔, which translates directly to “little horse” – and some gamblers believe that after they have eaten one, they will win at the horse races.

Cocktail bun (雞尾包)

The cocktail bun is a traditional HK-style bread resembling a soft, buttery brioche, stuffed with a sweet coconut filling and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

It’s believed that the filling for this beloved roll was originally a creative use of stale bread in order to avoid food waste. The old bread was torn up and mixed with coconut and sugar, which was then encased in a fresh roll. Various other additives to the filling became known as a “cocktail” of ingredients, and the name was born.

Chinese doughnut (沙翁)

Chinese doughnut (沙翁)

The Chinese doughnut is similar to a Western sugar doughnut but with an exterior of cracked crevices. The dough is made from flour, sugar, egg and butter and is deep-fried at a relatively low temperature until lightly golden brown. The piping-hot dough is then rolled in a bed of sugar, which results in a touch of melty caramelisation on the crust, with the sugar captured occasionally in the the cracks of the slightly crispy shell.

These sugary, eggy puffs are not to be confused with another type of fried dough that is sometimes called a Chinese doughnut – the savoury dough stick you tiao (油條) that usually accompanies a bowl of Chinese rice porridge known as congee.

When you next wander inside a Hong Kong bakery, keep an eye out for these iconic snacks. Now you know the stories behind the flavours!

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