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!

10 thoughts on “The Rise of Chinese Bakeries

  1. yoko

    I never tried pineapple bread. But it seems like what we call ‘Melon Pain’ in Japan. I want to try scallion bread. What’s in it?

  2. Frida Lee Post author

    Hi Yoko,

    The scallion bun has only scallion on top, very simple yet when it’s made right, very delicious. Thanks for reading my blog and your comment.

  3. 梅艾偉

    Hi Frida,
    I read this post with a great interest, now I know that “Chinese” bakery and “Western-style” bakery are the same thing seen from two different points of view. I know a Chinese bakery selling both traditional and “Western-style” Chinese pastries, but for the moment I’ve only tried moon cakes there(my favorite Chinese pastries). To me, buns should be made with lot of butter giving us calories helping to fight the cold weather especialy in the early morning, but I agree with you that Western pastries are made with too much sugar, it’s not good for health. Following the example of London, many bubble tea shops have opened these last two years in Paris with a great success,becoming increasingly popular!
    I absolutely want to try scallion Buns, hoping to find them here. Thank you again for this interested post and… à bientôt! 再見

  4. tina

    Try red bean. Also yummy and healthy. But sometimes can be too sweet.
    All you need is a cup of really good tea! And few friends.

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