Tag Archive for 'pork'

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.


Living History: Eating like an Italian Immigrant Family in 1919, Day 6



Yaaay, last day! Last day! I know it might seem like a dream to have to eat pastry every morning, but this part of the diet has left me feeling gross and hungry every day. Sugar consumption would have been just as prestigious as meat consumption for Italians in America. I didn’t realize how far my own diet had strayed from such a sweets-laden, carb-heavy menu like this week, so I’m glad to be done with it.

I went to Ferrara Bakery in Manhattan’s Little Italy, founded in 1892, and ordered a 1/4 lb of ameritti and pignoli cookies, which are some of my FAVORITE FOODS ON THE PLANET. But my order got mixed up: when I got home, I discovered I have two, chocolat-enrobed cannolis instead. Not very accurate to 1919, although Americans have always loved enorbing foods in chocolate. Oh well.


Homemade Macaroni with tomato sauce and chopped meat.
Pot roast. Peas.
Ice cream.


After church, Sundays were taken up by  a giant, late-afternoon meal, laden with pastas and meats. This meal was the most complicated dishes I prepare all week, and even these recipes  seemed simple to some of food I’ve cooked on on this blog.

I’ve never made pasta from scratch, but I figured why not give it a shot? I had stopped at Di Palo’s the night before and picked up some fresh pasta as a back up in case things really went wrong.

On pasta, Gentile had this to say: ‘The Italians serve the spaghetti or macaroni at the beginning of the meal, in place of soup, and they give it the name of Minestra Asciuttaor, “dry” soup. Besides the familiar spaghetti, the paste is served in many other forms and with different seasoning. This is by far the most popular Italian dish, and it seems to have pleased the taste of all the peoples of the earth.” The instructions I used to roll out my own pasta came from Wood, who said the best pasta was made with eggs. Back home, Southern Italians likely made pasta simply with water and flour; here, they could afford a richer pasta with eggs. Here’s Wood’s recipe, which I followed:

Tagliatelli o Pasta Fatta in Casa (Noodles or Home Made Paste)

Allow about a cup of flour to an egg. Put the flour on a bread board, make a hole in the middle, and break in the egg. Work it with a fork until it is firm enough to work with the hands. Knead it thoroughly adding, more flour if necessary, until you have a paste you can roll out. Roll it as thin as a ten-cent piece.

This paste may be cut in ribbons to be cooked in soup as Tagliatelli or cut in squares or circles and filled with various mixtures to make Cappelletti, Ravioli etc.

I used semolina flour (available from Bob’s Red Mill). I had to add a little extra water to the egg, then added more flour as I rolled it out “thin as a ten-cent piece.” I think it turned out well, especially for my first time!


I decided to cook it using another Wood recipe:

Spaghetti Italian Style

First put one quarter pound salt pork, sliced, in a small pan fry out and then strain it. Put fat back in pan; cut some garlic, if you like, one onion, too; stir a little and then put in two pork chops. Cook for about ten minutes, then add one cup strained tomato and cook for about half an hour to an hour according to meat. Second, put enough water in a good sized pan and let come to a boil; then put in one half pound spaghetti and cook .Strain spaghetti in a colander and spread in a platter over spaghetti; spread grated cheese and sauce. Put meat in a dish separate.

She used dry spaghetti, I simply subbed my fresh-made pasta. I fried bacon in a large skillet, and when it had browned, scooped out the bacon and leftt he hot fat. Then I added a medium-sized onion, chopped, and three chopped garlic cloves. When they had browned a bit, I added a big pork chop from Di Palo’s that I had cut into two-inch squares. Once the meat was brown, I added two cups of tomato sauce from the pot o’ sauce I made earlier this week, as well as salt and black pepper. I covered it and let it cook for 20 minutes, then added my fresh pasta and let it cook ten minutes more. When I plated the pasta, I topped it with crumbles of bacon and a grating of parmesan cheese.

The pasta turned out a bit too al dente, but still (I thought) very good. I love a tomato sauce paired with bacon fat; and although I thought the limited seasonings would be boring, the acid and sweetness of the tomatoes paired nicely with the umami meat. I scarfed a plate and swabbed up the sauce with bread.

Then came the “pot roast,” which is a very American/New England term. So what is it that they were cooking? I search Gentile’s Italian cookbook, and found this recipe for “Stewed Veal.” Veal is mentioned a few other times the meals that Sophinisba documents, so I thought it was an appropriate recipe for Sunday dinner.

(Stracotto di vitella)

Place in a saucepan one pound of veal or more, bone included, a piece of butter or some olive oil (or the two together), half a medium sized onion, one small carrot, two celery stalks cut in small pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Put it on a low fire, turn the meat over often and when browned add a pinch of flour and some tomato paste, bringing it to full cooking with water poured little by little. The flour is used to keep the sauce together and give it color, but care must be taken not to burn it, because in that case the sauce would have an unpleasant taste and a black, instead of a reddish color. The stewed veal can be served with some vegetable.


I actually decided to cook this dish in my slow-cooker; it could cook slow and low and I wouldn’t have to pay attention to it. I could have browned the meat, but I didn’t; I just put two, 1.5 lb bone-in veal shanks in the slow cooker, and seasoned them as the recipes directs, including a tablespoon of tomato pasta I mixed with a little water. I didn’t want to serve peas with the veal, as the menu suggested, because this dish was pulled from the summer menus, and peas aren’t in season now. So instead, I tucked little carrots and potatoes around the veal. I added four cups of water, and set it to cook on high for four hours.

The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and despite the simple seasoning, so flavorful. Even thought I felt full after eating a whole plate of pasta, the meat and veggies felt light in comparison, like I had plenty more space to fit them in.


I had planned to treat myself to some gelato later in the afternoon, but never had time after running to a series of meetings (how very un-Sunday of me). I got home late in the evening, and was feeling peckish, so I made some “supper.”


Rice cooked in milk with egg.
Cake. Coffee.


This supper is supposed to be a light meal after the heavy afternoon dinner. But the rice cooked in milk with egg was a really baffling recipe. I texted Jill to see if we could figure out was up here; she answered “Like an enriched rice pudding?? Rice pudding isn’t Italian…and I feel like rice pudding would have been known to her (Sophinisba), so she would have described it as rice pudding. I am really stumped.”

It didn’t mention sugar in the recipe, so I suspected it might be savory. Could it be a misinterpretation of risotto? but looking through Gentile’s book, I found this recipe for a savory rice dish with eggs:

(Sfornato di riso con rigoglie)

Make a good brown stock  and use the same for the rice as well as for the giblets. To these add some thin slices of ham and brown them first in butter, seasoned moderately with salt and pepper,completing the cooking with brown stock. A taste of mushrooms will be found useful.

Brown the rice equally in butter, then complete the cooking with hot water. Drain and put the brown stock, adding grated cheese and two beaten eggs, when the rice has cooled a little.

Take a smooth mold, round or oval, grease it evenly with butter, cover the bottom with buttered paper and place in it the rice to harden it in the oven. When taken from the mold pour over the gravy from the giblets, slightly thickened with a pinch of flour and serve with the giblets around, seeing that there is plenty of gravy for them.

I pulled parts of this recipe to create my dish: I browned the rice in butter–the only time I’ve used butter this week; perhaps I should have used olive oil. then, I cooked the rice in whole milk instead of stock or water. I turned off the burner, and while the rice was still got, poured in a beaten egg mixed with a generous amount of greater parmesan. Is stirred constantly while pouring in the egg, and let it sit, covered, for 10 more minutes. The result was creamy; sort of crumbled, but held together in chunks by the egg.

When I gave it a try…it was weird, at first. The rice felt a little greasy, from all the dairy fat, which is not a sensation I’m used to with rice. but then it grew on me–it was nutty, from the toasted rice, and cheesy from the generous parmesan shavings. Yeah I can get behind it. But if anyone has a better idea what this dish might be, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

The rice was enough; I skipped the cake, and definitely didn’t want coffee at 9pm.

So that’s the end of this week-long experiment. As I mentioned in another post, at one point I wasn’t certain I was going to continue writing this week in light of what was going on nationally; in the end, I’m really glad I did. It’s served as documentation of this important week in my life, as well as an outlet for issues that are important to me.

It’s the end of this experiment, but there are many more to come. Thank you for joining me.

Tales of the Cocktail Day 3: Rum and Pig


3:30 PM you may have noticed this is my first update of the day. Let’s just say it was a long night and a rough morning. I just got up. And I’m in line for my first seminar, a history of rum. These are all the rums I have to taste. Oh well, hair of the dog.

5pm a few quotes from the talk:

“Old is not always good. They made a lot of deadly shit back then.”

“But what’s missing (from alcohol) today are those lovely, tasty poisons!” panelists on 19th and early 20th c alcohol

“How can we evoke the past without recreating the past?” -David Wondrich

And I tasted a fantastic, historic pineapple rum.
 The pineapple rum is from a recipe in an old patent; both the rind and the fruit are infused in separate rums and blended. It’s a collaboration between Wondrich and Plantation Rum.

6pm I was just at an orange is the new black pool party? This drink was awful.


7pm dinner at Cochon– best meal I’ve had in NOLA


Then more drinks and drinks and drinks.