Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Rise of Chinese Bakeries

Mugi Bakery & Cafe in Flushing, New York

You probably remember the last time you ate at a Chinese restaurant or had Chinese takeout, but when was the last time you went to a Chinese bakery? If the answer is never, you’re missing out.  Asian people go to Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo and Little Manila in North America and Europe, not just to eat or shop, but also to visit their bakeries.  Most Asian countries have their own style of bakeries, but Chinese bakeries outnumber all the others.  In New York City alone, there are more than 120 Chinese bakeries.  In Toronto there are a whopping 160.   And the numbers are growing fast.  In fact, Chinese bakeries are going mainstream, spreading beyond the borders of Chinatowns.  Now you can find them at Citi Field, in Manhattan’s Garment District, and near UC Irvine’s campus.

What is a Chinese Bakery Anyway?

Let’s face it, China isn’t known for its desserts.  What we call a “Chinese” bakery in North America and Europe is actually called a “Western-Style” bakery in Asia.  These bakeries make Western-influenced bread, cakes and pastries which are different from the items found in traditional Chinese bake shops.  We call this type of bakery “Chinese” because we find them in every Chinatown in the world and to differentiate them from traditional Western patisseries.

The Origin of Chinese Bakeries

Chinese people didn’t just wake up one day and decide to bake Western goods. It took two major historical events to provide an alternative to Chinese breakfasts and afternoon snacks, which we can see by looking at two types of bakeries: Hong Kong style and Taiwanese.  Hong Kong has a strong Western influence because it was a British colony for 156 years.  Taiwan started Western-influenced baking during the Japanese occupation in the late 1930s.  (Japan underwent “Westernization” during the Meiji Period when the emperor decided to adopt Western industrial advances.) There is a clear distinction between Taiwanese and Hong Kong bakeries in Asia. Taiwan tends to bake more bread-like buns whereas Hong Kong features more tarts and pastries.  However, outside of Asia you won’t see many regional differences in the baked goods offered because just like Chinese restaurants overseas, Chinese bakeries have become all inclusive.

Differences between Chinese and Western Bakeries

In general, Chinese baked goods use a lot less sugar and butter than Western pastries and are healthier. The bread is also softer than French baguettes or American dinner rolls because Chinese bakers use less yeast and beat the yolks and egg whites into the batter separately.  The result is soft, light, fluffy bread.  Another distinct difference is the low price of the items.  A piece of cake or a bun usually costs around one US dollar.

What Do Chinese Bakeries Bake?

A major Chinese bakery produces as many as 300 different items per day, ranging from bread, buns, pastries, cookies, sandwiches, cakes, hot drinks and cold beverages.  It’s hard to choose from such a huge selection so I recommend you try the baked goods below (some of my favorites) which you can find in every Chinese bakery:

  • Egg Custard Tart– a sweet tart with egg custard filling (Hong Kong Style is yellow on top whereas Portuguese Style is slightly burned)
  • Pineapple Bun – a slightly sweet bread without any pineapples. The name came from the “pineapple-like” crispy crust. 
  • Scallion Bun – a savory bread with scallions on top 
  • Raisin Twist – a soft bread filled with raisins, but far lighter than a Cinnabon. This is my friend Simon’s favorite treat.   He goes to Chinatown in London just to buy raisin twists, yet no matter how many he buys, he always goes home empty handed.  His excuse is that the subway ride is too long.  
  • Milk Tea – black tea with sugar and milk.  You can ask the server to adjust the amount of sugar you want.  Milk Tea goes great with any of the above breads.
  • Bubble Tea – sweet tea with small chewy balls made of tapioca starch.  You can get either iced bubble tea or hot bubble tea.  With bubble tea you don’t need any bread—it’s a stand-alone dessert treat.

Write and let me know which item is your favorite!

The Scent of Memory: Western-Style Chinese Bakeries

When I was little, there were several “Western-style” (西點麵包) bakeries in Taipei.  They baked hot, soft, savory-sweet bread and sold cold milk that came in glass bottles.  Eating those Western-influenced baked goods was my earliest and most delicious food memory, and the experience was so profound that I often dream about it now, many years and many miles later.  Just last week, when I passed by a bakery on Madison Avenue, the aroma took me directly back to my childhood.

When I was three, my family lived on Zhongshan North Road, Section 2, an eight-lane thoroughfare that was also the most high-end district in Taipei.  Back then, Zhongshan North Road was Taipei’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue in NYC with its deluxe hotels, five-star restaurants, airline headquarters, premium boutiques, English bookstores and throngs of tourists. It was actually more stunning than Fifth Avenue because majestic maple trees lined the wide road for miles.

My eight-year-old sister, Wen-wen, would come home from school at three o’clock every day, too late for lunch and too early for dinner.  Wen-wen and I always got hungry at this odd hour so my mother, a successful businesswoman, would give my sister money to take me to a “Western-style” bakery.  It was actually the perfect time to go to a bakery because the bread was baked twice a day, early in the morning and in mid-afternoon. If you go to a bakery in Taiwan during these times, you’re sure to have hot, soft, steaming buns. Back then, bakeries were not as popular as they are in Taipei today, so we had to walk 10-15 minutes to reach the closest one.  During our walk, my sister usually asked me what kind of bread and milk I would choose. The milk was either white or flavored with juice; chocolate milk came later. Although there were more than a dozen varieties of bread, I usually chose between my four favorites: Scallion Bun, Pineapple Bun, Peanut Butter Bun or Strawberry Jam Bun.  I took our food discussions seriously, perhaps because this was the only time I was in charge of choosing my own food.  I’d tell Wen-wen exactly what I was going to eat and why—I always had a very specific explanation for my daily snack!  My sister would listen patiently and then, copying my chain of reasoning, she’d tell me her bakery choices for the day.

Wen-wen and I usually sat side-by-side facing the window and ate our snacks quietly.  Silence is the only sound when the food speaks louder than the world. I liked to watch the people walk by through the big glass window. Sitting on a stool, legs too short to touch the floor, I held a bun in one hand and a bottle of milk in the other. (How I miss those days when milk came in a glass bottle—an age of simple and clean food.)  The bread was hot, the aroma of baking surrounded the whole store and lingered blocks away, and I savored every bite of my bread as if it were the last food I’d ever eat. My family always teased me about my intense concentration when I ate.  The outside world disappeared. I truly lived for the moment, for every bite of food I had in my mouth.  This bakery ritual lasted until I started elementary school, but my sister and I never grew tired of our afternoon strolls.

I still remember vividly one afternoon when my sister and I were walking home from a bakery and I looked up at Wen-wen as she told me her school stories. I saw the sunshine sparkling through the maple tree leaves, enjoyed the fall’s lazy breeze brushing by my face, and felt full, content and loved. I was only three or maybe four but, young as I was, I knew at that very moment I was blessed—blessed to be walking on beautiful Zhongshan North Road with delicious buns in my stomach and my loving sister by my side.

Perhaps it’s because my bakery memory was so profoundly satisfying, or perhaps it’s because my sister Wen-wen departed this world at the young age of 29 (and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her), but I keep dreaming about walking into my favorite childhood bakery and choosing hot bread.  Living in New York City for the past fourteen years, the bakery has become the passage back to my childhood and to my homeland, Taiwan.

In my next post, I will talk about the rise of the Chinese bakery in North America and Europe.  I will also discuss what distinguishes a Chinese bakery and describe some of the delicious goods they bake. 

Savory Oatmeal – A Healthy Breakfast with Asian Flair

Experiment with Oatmeal

I first thought of making oatmeal for breakfast because of its health benefits – full of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, oatmeal can lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and even reduce weight.  Knowing virtually nothing about this hot cereal except for its benefits, I did some research on different types of oatmeal and their tastes.  My first bite of unflavored oatmeal left me less than impressed.  Americans in the mid-1800s called oatmeal “nothing more than horse feed” and I suddenly felt sorry for the horses.  Still, I thought, oatmeal has to be good for you.  Anything that tastes this bland, but has been around for this long, must be healthy.  Otherwise oatmeal would be extinct with the dinosaurs.

Healthy and Sweet Oatmeal

By nature, oatmeal is bland.  Oat grains take a while to cook (about 30 minutes). Instant oatmeal solves the problem of this time-consuming and tasteless breakfast, yet most brands are loaded with sugar and artificial flavors.  Reading the ingredients, I instantly ruled out instant oatmeal.  Instead I purchased a box of McCann Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal and cooked it with fat-free organic milk.  The milk made it creamier and added a boost of calcium.  Then I added maple syrup (or honey) instead of sugar, and replaced artificial flavors found in instant oatmeal with organic raisins, banana slices and walnuts.  I even added freshly ground flax seeds to make my breakfast super healthy.  The result was wholesome and delicious. But I was happy with this recipe for only one month.  Perhaps because my sweet tooth was never developed (I was one of those strange kids who didn’t love chocolate or cake), I always crave something savory instead of sweet.  So I quickly searched online to see if there were any unique oatmeal recipes that would fulfill my jones for salt.  As I guessed, I wasn’t the only one craving a savory breakfast.  Although a couple of savory recipes looked delicious and interesting, many contained cheese and meat, which was not the kind of “clean” food I’d hoped for.

Asian Flavored Savory Oatmeal

I quit searching online and started searching my childhood food memories.  My grandmother used to make different types of congee (a rice porridge popular in many Asian countries) for me and my sister. Some of her congees were sweet (rice cooked with sweet potatoes and water) but most were savory.  I combined her cooking technique with ingredients readily found in any supermarket and came up with this recipe:

Oatmeal with Chicken Soup and Mushrooms Recipe

Oatmeal Cooked in a Rice Cooker

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  1. ½ cup of McCann Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal (or any other steel cut oatmeal)
  2. 1 ½  cups of organic, low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth (the ratio of oatmeal to chicken broth is 1:3)
  3. 2 pieces of dried shiitake mushrooms (or fresh shiitake if dried mushrooms are not available)
  4. ½ scallion
  5. 1 dash of black or white pepper (according to your taste)

Directions:

  1. Soak dried mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes until soft.  (You can prepare the mushrooms the night before)  If you use fresh mushrooms, no soaking required.
  2. Julienne mushrooms.
  3. Place oatmeal, chicken broth, and mushrooms in the rice cooker, and follow your rice cooker instructions.  If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can cook the oatmeal in a pan over the stovetop at low heat for 30 minutes (stir occasionally to avoid sticking).
  4. After the rice cooker is turned off, let the oatmeal sit in the cooker and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Chop the scallion very fine
  6. Garnish the oatmeal with your scallion and a dash of white or black pepper.

This unique recipe requires only three main ingredients which you can find in your supermarket. Since the rice cooker is doing all the work for you, you can get ready for your day while the oatmeal cooks. Or, you can make the oatmeal the night before, keep it in the refrigerator, and heat it up in the microwave for 3 minutes in the morning.  Savory oatmeal is a delicious, healthy and almost effortless breakfast.  Give it a try!