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THE IDIOTS GUIDE: Chinatown’s Cantonese Pastries

Have you ever walked into one of those dimly lit bakeries in Chinatown and been greeted by trays of unknown delicacies behind that glass counter? As with trying out any exotic ethnic foods, it is good to have some knowledge of what you’re getting into beforehand. This is certainly true for Chinese breads, which feature many acquired-taste ingredients hidden behind a facade of spongy soft breadiness.

First and foremost, some background: bread is not a top staple in China. Especially in the south, it is treated mostly as a snack or something to be eaten simply for enjoyment. Therefore, catering to such expectations, Cantonese bread is soft, sweet, refined and easily palatable, almost like a dessert. The goal of the Chinese baker is not to produce taste or textural complexity but rather to create simple, spongy and sugary enjoyment. All these highly palatable characteristics make Cantonese pastries easily appealing to many. At its most basic, an unfilled Cantonese sweet bun embodies mild, comprehensible flavours and holds no unexpected surprises.

Pineapple Bun

Chinese bakers love to add unusual toppings or fillings to jazz up the humble Cantonese bun. Most types of Cantonese buns consist of a slightly sweet and extremely soft bread encasing different fillings. One of the most common Cantonese buns is the pineapple bun, or bo luo bao (菠萝包). These round, unfilled rolls have a characteristic crispy cookie crust on top which creates a cracked pineapple-like pattern when baked, thus explaining its namesake. At its best, the top outer layer is supposed to have a noticeable crispiness that counters the spongy softness of the bun, thus creating a texture contrast that adds some variation to an otherwise monotonously sweet roll.

Pineapple Bun with Red Bean Filling

To make the unassuming pineapple bun more interesting, bakers often put fillings into their rolls. The most common fillings include sweet red bean paste, sweet taro paste, or Chinese BBQ pork. Red bean paste is a common ingredient found in many Cantonese desserts and consists of boiled red kidney beans mashed with sugar. The primary taste gravitates more towards sweetness than beaniness. Taro paste, similarly, consists of mashed taro (a starchy root vegetable similar to a potato or yucca) and sugar but usually the sweetness overwhelms the delicate taro flavour. BBQ pork, or char siu, is probably more widely-known with its sweet pork cubes smothered in a thickened red sauce.

Cantonese Egg Tart

Cantonese pastries originate from areas that were heavily exposed to heavy Western influences, so there are many common buns that blatantly try to emulate their Western counterparts. The egg tart, or dan ta (蛋挞), is probably the most popular of these imitations. Cantonese egg tarts are mild, eggy, and not too sweet, with either a shortbread or flaky crust. Sometimes Portuguese-style tarts can be found where the tops are caramelized with tell-tale black splotches of burnt sugar. Sounds unappetizing but tastes heavenly, especially fresh out of the oven.

Char Siu Sou

This is another popular Western imitation. It is a type of layered pastry or sou (酥). A Chinese take on French pastries, I find that sou from most Chinese bakeries are more noteworthy for their sometimes fillings, such as curried beef, BBQ pork, or tuna salad. Otherwise you’re probably better off purchasing the real deal from a Western bakery, for Chinese shortcrust pastries tend to be saggy and characterless.

Winter Melon Biscuit

In addition to the mostly Western-influenced pastries described above, there are in fact several common pastries that are quintessentially Chinese in origin. The winter melon biscuit, or “wife cake” (老婆饼) is one of the most popular ones. This flat biscuit consists of a thin layer of flaky pastry wrapped around a sweet and chewy winter melon paste. There are many stories behind its name, most of which centre around a husband creating it for his wife.

Fried sesame balls with Red Bean filling

Another very popular pastry found in bakeries and dim sum restaurants is the fried sesame balls, known in Chinese as jian dui (煎堆) or ma tuan (麻团). These sesame-encrusted fried pastries are made with glutinuous rice flour (producing a chewy texture similar to that of mochi) and usually consist of a sweet filling such as red bean or lotus paste. Sometimes they can be found with a savoury meat filling as well. I think the most notable aspect of jian dui is the contrast between the dough’s chewy texture and the gentle snap of the sesame seeds as one works through the pastry.

– Winnie Zhuang (Article & Photos)

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alana #

    Mmm, Chinese baked goods are my favorite.
    Just one note – The red beans used in Asian desserts are not kidney beans. They are often referred to as Azuki beans.

    December 12, 2010
  2. Emily #

    “The goal of the Chinese baker is not to produce taste or textural complexity”, “Cantonese sweet bun embodies mild, comprehensible flavours and holds no unexpected surprises”, “Chinese bakers love to add unusual toppings or fillings to jazz up the humble Cantonese bun”.

    Seriously, what is your problem? Have some respect.

    There are many people who find the richness in Chinese baked goods. And understandably, those who are not accustomed to eating these snacks don’t necessarily find them all to be “comprehensible” at first. I know a few people who have been surprised by the texture and taste of a cha siu bao. Additionally, these items are NOT easy to make (well) and bakers don’t add toppings just for a hell of it.

    And this line: “…where the tops are caramelized with tell-tale black splotches of burnt sugar. Sounds unappetizing but tastes…”

    Would you phrase it the same way if you were talking about creme brulee? Of course not!

    Just because a dessert/snack is Chinese, it must be “humble” with no depth in flavor? Oh, right! These baked goods MUST be inferior to those of other cultures because they’re Chinese!

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Grow up. The undertone of this whole piece is infuriating.

    September 4, 2011
    • Hi Emily,
      Thank you for your comment. This writer, Winnie, did not mean any disrespect towards the Cantonese pastries. If anything, she can say whatever she wants because she is of Cantonese descent and has lived in Guangzhou for a long time, so while I appreciate your comment, I find your tone infuriating as well. I apologize if this piece is offending to anyone else.

      October 3, 2011

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