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. 

12 thoughts on “The Scent of Memory: Western-Style Chinese Bakeries

  1. virtuos and beautiful

    This post left me with tears in the the end. I’m really sorry about your sister. She sounded like a very sweet person. Your description was so vivid and warm that I could actually smell the bread in the bakery. Your sentence was so beautiful: “Silence is the only sound when the food speaks louder than the world.”

    You are an amazing writer. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Frida Lee Post author

    Thank you so much for reading and your touching comments. I also read your blog just now. I loved all your photos and topics. I’ll read in detail later. By the way, how did you find my blog? I’m still kind of new to WordPress so there is still a lot to learn.

  3. Lydia

    Frida, let’s meet in TPE next time, and go to Zhongshan N. Rd. to buy the hot, soft, savory-sweet buns together.

  4. 梅艾偉

    Salut Frida!
    your story does not surprise me because I already knew that among the few things French colonialism has left in Vietnam and former Indochina the best is perhaps bakery! even not wine or cheese but bakery…and if someday I have to live in Asia,I will certainly miss cheese and French bread even if in fact I prefer Chinese food! for you of course, because of your childhood memories, the smell of the bakery is closely linked to the memory of your sister,may she rest in peace,and left a strong and lasting impression on continuing to enjoy good bakery, I’m sure your sister is not far from you!
    By the way, you’re also a good writer and it’s a pleasure to read from you!

  5. Frida Lee Post author

    Hi 梅艾偉,
    Thanks so much for your message and lovely comments. It’s my childhood memory made the Chinese baked goods so delicious and precious to me. But I don’t dare to say that the Chinese buns are as good as French bread!

  6. 梅艾偉

    Chinese baked goods/western-style bakery…I am eager to read your next post to understand better what distinguishes them

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