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Traditional Chinese Pastry Isn’t Baked–So What’s Up With Chinatown “Bakeries”?

An assortment of Chinese pastries. All photos by Dressler Parsons.

I’m so excited to share this post by my lastest intern, Dressler. She’s launched a blog called Bitter Butter: The Unsweet History of Pastries and you can also hire her for all things copywriting.

“That’s $12.50,” said the woman behind the counter.

Sarah and I exchanged a look. We had just spent the last several minutes poring over the long glass pastry cases in her neighborhood Chinese bakery, scrutinizing the fluffy rolls and imagining all their possible fillings. In the end, we’d selected 10 pastries, hoping to cover all our bases. We carried the goodies back to her apartment in paper bags.

“$12.50 wouldn’t get you ten pastries anywhere else,” I remember saying. “At a French bakery, it would get you, like, two. Maybe three.”

Sarah shrugged. “That’s one great thing about Chinese bakeries.”

But once I started digging into it, “Chinese bakery” started to feel like an oxymoron. Historically, Chinese pastries weren’t baked–they were steamed. But all the treats in our paper bags had definitely seen the inside of an oven. So if traditional Chinese pastries aren’t baked, what are these pastries and where are they coming from?

A baked pork bun.

Chinese baking (or traditional lack thereof)

Even today, there are a ton of blog posts and forum answers warning you (or, primarily, American expats) that ovens in Chinese kitchens are hard to come by–because Chinese cuisine gets along fine without ‘em. All the cooking can be done on a stove top: frying, braising, boiling, and steaming.

This 1917 Chinese Cook Book, for example, has an English-translated recipe for a “Meat Biscuit” that’s definitely a pork bun–and it’s steamed. The two other desserts it lists are also steamed, not baked. A Popular Science clipping from 1922 sings it again:

Most Chinese pastry is steamed rather than baked. Thick wooden covers that serve as heat insulators are placed over the mouth of the boiling pot. Where the food is to be steamed, a circular wooden frame like a small barrel six or eight inches deep is placed over the stove opening.”

The bakeries in New York’s Chinatown, where Sarah lives, are technically Hong Kong-style, even though they’re referred to broadly as “Chinese bakeries.” And Hong Kong has felt, firsthand, the strong grip of Western influence.


Hong Kong’s colonial history

Jeremy Pang says it best in Hong Kong Diner when he says food leaves a trail by which you can trace a history of cultural invasion, interaction or occupation. Specific to Hong Kong, he adds:

“Even the specialist breads from the local bakeries bear a considerable resemblance to the French brioche, just with the addition of spam, barbecued pork or coconut custard on the inside or a good old British crumble on top instead!”

Hong Kong was under British rule beginning in 1842, but in the 1980s, China decided they wanted to take Hong Kong back. A pretty reasonable request. Geographically, Hong Kong isn’t exactly Britain’s neighbor. The main reason why this was even a debate was–like many things–purely political. China was/is a Communist country, and even though they laid out a plan to keep Hong Kong a sovereign state, Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was all I don’t know about this one, and But HOW will I explain this to the children colonized people of Hong Kong?

Regardless, China did take Hong Kong back, and Thatcher figured out some way to explain the ensuing Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which announced that Hong Kong would slip away from British rule and run back into the arms of China beginning July 1, 1997.

If you’ve heard of the “brain drain” of Berlin, this was Hong Kong’s version. Unsure about their future with China, roughly 250,000 Hong Kong citizens emigrated overseas. They aimed primarily for Canada, because it was easier to get into, but New York saw a huge increase too, fueling and expanding what was, at the time, “the nation’s largest Chinatown.” (Currently, the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens claims that title.)

The history of British rule alone at least partially accounts for the baking. After all, we know the Brits and their love of baked goods.


But what about the bread itself?

If you’ve never been to a Chinese bakery, go now, order any roll, and then come back. I’ll wait.

The bread has an usual texture, yes? This soft, gummy, chewy bread is bizarrely fluffy, intriguingly addictive, and has even been scientifically studied. And the source of this texture is called a tangzhong starter.

The tangzhong starter is also sometimes called a “roux starter,” which basically means that instead of the traditional bread-baking process (mix together flour, water, salt, yeast; knead it, let it rise), you add an extra step in, where you heat flour and water in a saucepan and whisk them together until they form a paste. Once it cools, you add it to the rest of the ingredients, and your little roux works its magic. It’s called gelatinization, and I think it’s a fascinating process.

The type of bread that uses tangzhong starter tends to be called Hokkaido Milk Bread, after a region in Japan known for its dairy products.

If you’re curious to try out this tasty, tasty bread, here’s a basic recipe from Yi of Yi Reservation.

A good example of milk bread from a Hong Kong style bakery.

So where is Hokkaido milk bread from?

Guess who was under Japanese rule for a hot second? Hong Kong! This was during WWII, from 1941-1945. The tangzhong starter technique is allegedly Japanese, which means it could have entered Hong Kong’s culinary lexicon during this period. And the technique having a Japanese origin tracks; after all, Japan has also had its fair share of western culinary influence.

In the 16th century, Portugal made contact with Japan and opened up trading ports (and started a slave trade). Japan traded exclusively with Holland (and China) from 1641-1853, and then opened up trading ports to the rest of the “Western World” in 1859. The Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce also meant that American merchants were settling into Japan, so some manner of culinary exchange was definitely taking place.

Also, Japan definitely has its own breadbaking technique called Yudane. It’s not an exact match–Yudane is a mix of flour and hot water, but they’re not whisked together into a roux. Instead, boiling water is poured over the flour, the mixture is chilled overnight, and the rest stays the same. It’s not clear if Yudane is older than Tangzhong, or a more modern adaptation.

If the tangzhong technique truly is originally Japanese, it might have been popularized in China by Taiwanese baker Yu Fen Chen. Taiwan itself was colonized by the Dutch and later controlled by China, Japan, and then China again until 1975–so they’re pulling from a familiar cauldron of influence.

As far as Chen goes, she wrote wrote 65℃ Bread Doctor, referring to the temperature at which the roux works its gelatinous bread magic. It’s a little unclear what, exactly, the timeline was for this book. It seems like it was published in 2014, but it’s possible that Chen was spreading the technique before her book was published. She’s certainly enough of a celebrity chef now to appear on TV and teach pastry lessons.

The Chinese book title gets translated into “65 Soup Kind Of Bread” when put through the Google Translate wringer, which could be read as a deep mistranslation–but I don’t think it is.

This is because cookbook author Peter Reinhart refers to the “Chinese soup seed technique” in his Whole Grain Breads book, which suggests that “soup bread” or “soup seed” is another possible name for tangzhong starter. And that might sound weird, but it’s actually not–since a roux is the basis for most cream-based soups, it’s not a “leap” so much as the next logical step.

Dan Tats!

Most importantly–how tasty were those pastries?

Back in Sarah’s apartment, we studiously cut up, photographed, and took notes on the pastries–trying to eat the warm ones first, but aware we were fighting a losing battle.

The pork bun was the first pastry I tried, and my favorite–I grew up on barbecue, so there was something kind of homey about the chopped pulled pork smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce, in a roll that tasted almost like a Hawaiian roll. But fluffier. I liked it so much I legitimately forgot we had 9 more pastries ahead of us, and would’ve finished it if Sarah hadn’t leapt to my rescue.

But as we moved into successive pastries, most of the rolls with intriguingly varied names and designs were just…bread. Extremely delicious, fluffy, chewy bread, but still. That being said, it amazed me how these pastries quietly painted such a complex history of colonial rule, trade, and immigration. The fluffy “Danish Milk Grape” and “Swedish Roll,” and the cookie top on the Pineapple Bun and Lemon Bun (neither of which were filled with their names, bee tee dubs) all speak to trade routes and occupation, to colliding culinary influences.

It was a little overwhelming, later that night, to think about the full journey of these pastries–their ingredients, techniques, and recipes. In a sense, they had made their way from Japan, through Taiwan, to Hong Kong, to Manhattan. And finally, they were in my apartment in Brooklyn, where I wrapped a leftover bun in a damp paper towel, stuck it in a microwave for 20 seconds, and enjoyed the warm, spongy bread with a pat of butter.


The History Dish: “Barida,” A Medieval Arab Recipe with Ancient Roman Roots

Barrida, an herby-chicken dish.

This is a special guest post from Intern Andrew! We just wrapped working together for the past five months, and as a result, he’s launched a new blog: Pass The Flamingowhich focuses on ancient cuisine. Read on to learn more about a unique recipe from the Islamic world.

Over its long history, the Arab world has become a unique crossroads, the site of centuries of influence and exchange between cultures indigenous and foreign. One example of this influence is in foods like barida: an Islamic-era chicken dish that carries on the traditions of Ancient Rome.

Much of what we now call the Arab world was at one time also the Roman world. In the third century BCE, two great rival nations stood on opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea: the Roman Republic and the kingdom of Carthage. A century later, Carthage was no more and Rome had overtaken its territory in Spain and North Africa. From there, Roman power would swiftly circle the coastline as the Romans conquered first Syria, then Egypt, then the Levant. By the first decade of the first century, the Romans ruled every land touched by Mediterranean waters.

Wherever Roman power extended, so did Roman culture. The Romans introduced their gods, language, laws and food to every land they conquered, while also picking up new habits and customs from the people of those lands. One of the ways this history shows itself most clearly is in food. Reading the book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali (2009), I was struck by the various similarities between Ancient Roman cuisine and the cuisine of the medieval Arabs, Berbers and other North African and Middle Eastern peoples.

One of the most central ingredients in Roman cuisine is the fermented fish sauce garum. Savory, salty and rich in B-vitamins, garum is used in almost every Roman recipe. Zaouali describes a fermented sauce called murri as essential to medieval Islamic cuisine. In its role in cuisine as well as its flavor and nutritional profile, murri is identical to the garum of Ancient Rome, except for one key difference: garum is made from fermented fish, and murri from fermented barley (although Zaouali also records a variant made with grasshoppers). Some scholars believe murri evolved directly from Roman garum, connecting the name to Latin salmuris, which means “brine”, or to muria, one of the byproducts of garum production. Zaouali connects both sauces to a common origin in the ancient Middle East; perhaps analogous to soy sauce and fish sauce in Asian cuisines, which also diversified from a common point of origin.

The first Arabic-language cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes), was written in 10th-century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Sarah has made several dishes from this book, including a chicken wrap, a lamb stew, and a roast chicken with a savory pudding. You can read about them here. The Book of Dishes features a number of recipes for barida, chicken or fish topped with a complex sauce of spices and herbs that is prepared separately from the meat. Al-Warraq traces barida to the 8th-century ‘Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, but the distinctive techniques and combinations of ingredients are far older, with roots in Roman North Africa and other places with a long history of cross-cultural exchange.

Typical ingredients in the sauce poured on barida include Roman favorites: dates, caraway, cumin, coriander/cilantro, asafetida, rue, pomegranate and pepper, with murri standing in for garum. The spicy-sweet-bitter flavor profile as well as the serving and preparation call to mind the 3rd-century Roman cookbook Apicius, including one of its most memorable entries, a recipe for a whole, roasted flamingo. When I recreated that recipe for my ancient food blog (which takes its name, Pass the Flamingo, from that particular experiment), I had to compromise by using a duck, but I managed a pretty faithful interpretation of the main element of the dish: a thick sauce of many ingredients, sweet and intensely spiced, prepared separately from the meat and poured on top for serving.

It’s worth noting that many of these ingredients popular among the Romans are actually native to the Middle East and North Africa (including flamingo itself). Although the influence of Roman cuisine on later Medieval Arab cuisine is apparent, it is less clear with whom these recipes and techniques truly originated. Was it Romans who adopted foreign influence into their diet, or non-Romans who adopted Roman influence–or both?

The Recipe

Out of several barida recipes in Zaouali’s book, this one caught my eye largely because it includes the herb elecampane, which I had never had the opportunity to use before (more on that below). Zaouali includes a translation of al-Warraq’s 10th century original:

Cold Chicken With Spices and Herbs

Take some vinegar and murrī and in them macerate coriander [seeds], Chinese cinnamon, pepper, dried and fresh thyme, cumin, caraway, fresh coriander [cilantro], mint, rue, celery, the pulp of a cucumber, and elecampane. Put everything in a grinder, mix, and pour over the grilled chicken.

Some notes on the ingredients:

  • I inferred that the recipe calls for celery leaves, which are often used as an herb in Roman recipes. They have a similar flavor to the stalks.
  • Per Zaouali’s suggestion, soy sauce will substitute for barley-based murri. The flavor is said to be similar, but I also noticed strong similarities between the process for making murri as described by Zaouali and the traditional process for making soy sauce. In both cases, a cooked grain is shaped into cakes, allowed to air-dry and rot, and then sealed up with water and salt to ferment. A lot of modern soy sauce brands even contain barley or wheat.
  • I wasn’t quite sure which part of a cucumber constitutes “the pulp”–just the flesh? Just the seeds? I decided to go with both.
  • “Chinese cinnamon” is an old name for Cinnamomum cassia, the species commonly called “cinnamon” in the USA.
  • Elecampane is a species of sunflower with an edible root. It has many other names, all of which make it sound like it belongs in a Shakespearean witches’ brew (horse-heal, scabwort, elfdock, yellow starwort, etc). I managed to find some of the dried root at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, my go-to stop for spices and herbs from around the world. In case you were wondering, elecampane tastes extremely bitter and smells like wood chips, specifically those wood shavings you put in the bottom of a hamster cage. The package I bought says “not been evaluated by FDA.” I think it was meant to be made into tea.
  • Rue is another bitter herb that was popular in ancient times. I have some dried rue that I ordered online and have used in many Roman recipes. It’s worth being cautious about, as some people are allergic. Dandelion leaves would be a good substitute for both rue and elecampane.

Below is the recipe according to the procedure I followed:


4 chicken legs (skin on)
Pinch of salt
½ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
About ½ of cup each of the following fresh herbs, loosely packed:
Mint (any variety)
Celery leaves
½ teaspoon each of the following:
Black pepper
Dried thyme
Coriander seed
Caraway seed
Dried elecampane
Dried rue (Substitute a couple of fresh dandelion leaves for the elecampane and rue, or leave out)

  1. Season the chicken legs with a little salt on both sides and cook them on a stovetop grill over medium-high heat. When they are finished, remove and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind all the dry ingredients into powder. Then add the other sauce ingredients and continue to grind until you have an even green paste.
  3. Spoon the sauce over the pieces of cold chicken and serve.

The Results

Barida is explicitly described as an appetizer served cold. At first that sounded unappetizing to me, but I can only guess that the low temperature is necessary to keep the herbs in the sauce from being cooked by the heat of the chicken. In the end, I was really pleased with how this recipe turned out. The sauce has a bright flavor from all the fresh herbs; the soy sauce provides all the necessary salt, and the pureed cucumber balances out the acid from the vinegar. There are so many other ingredients that I couldn’t taste each of them individually, and I’m still skeptical about the inclusion of both dried and fresh thyme, which I’ve never seen in a recipe before.

The bitterness of the elecampane is hard to shake, and it was the last flavor I tasted in the sauce. Bitter as a flavor seems to have been much better-appreciated in ancient times than today. If the bitter ingredients were taken out, I wouldn’t be surprised to find something like this on a modern menu.