Tag Archives: the

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 Best New Whiskey: Kavalan

If I told you that not only does the best new whiskey come from Taiwan, but that it beat out a host of top-notch whiskeys in an international competition, you’d think I was crazy or biased (after all, I am Taiwanese!) or both.  But before you raise your eyebrow and question why Kavalan’s single malt is one of the best-tasting whiskeys on the market, let me show you some hard, non-biased evidence.

According to the famous British newspaper, The Times, Kavalan was the top pick in a connoisseurs’ blind taste test in Scotland.  “It beat a trio of top Scottish blends.” Shocked?  Amazed?  You’re not the only one.  “Oh my God,” commented whiskey-connoisseur Charles MacLean when the result was announced in 2010, the same year Kavalan won a Gold Award and made it into Jim Murray’s 2010 edition of the Whisky Bible, the world’s leading whiskey guide.

Although whiskey isn’t my soul mate like tea is, whiskey has been my choice of poison for the past decade.  I like my poison the way I like my men – strong and quiet. With at least 40% alcohol, whiskey means business.  But more important, whiskey is a quiet drink.  It doesn’t come with artificial color, sugar or an umbrella which screams, “I’m so pretty.  Look at me!” Best of all, it doesn’t give me a bad hangover the next day.

I first heard of Kavalan Whisky from my niece, Hui-jen, when my friends and I decided to tour around Taiwan. She thought my American friends, visiting Formosa for the first time, might enjoy sampling some local whiskey.  Without an actual address, we ventured to Yilan in search of the distillery.  Just as we guessed, Kavalan was very well-known to the Yilan natives and the first person we asked pointed us in the right direction.  When we got to the distillery, the woman in front told us we’d just missed the guided tour by 25 minutes, so we rushed to the second plant, ran through the different rooms where gigantic machines worked in some, where barrels of whiskey aged in others, and finally caught up with the tour. The view of the tasting room, the room at the end of our mad dash, was spectacular – a huge hall packed with a few hundred Asian tourists.  Having no seats, my friends and I sat at the bar and chatted with the bartenders.  And this turned out to be the best experience of the whole tour.  When we asked to sample different whiskeys, the bartender glanced at the other tourists, who were tasting only one whiskey, and told us, very quietly, to wait until they were gone.  Sure enough, when the mass exodus was over, the bartender brought out several different bottles of Kavalan for the four of us to try.  He answered all of our questions and the whiskey certainly quenched our thirst.  By the time we left the distillery we were happily buzzed.

The experts had given Kavalan a big thumbs up.  But what about an amateur whiskey drinker like me who’s only been drinking the good stuff for a decade?  After our personal tasting, I was convinced that Kavalan single malt was the best whiskey I’d ever had the pleasure to drink.  Rich, smooth, with a great after taste, this Taiwanese whiskey was tops.

With a blind-taste-test victory under its belt, along with my amateur’s decree, the question about Kavalan’s rank as a premier whiskey had been answered.  But another question remained:  how could Taiwan produce a top-shelf whiskey that could compete against Scotland’s finest blends?  The Chinese philosopher Mencius believed there are three fundamental elements for success: 天時 (the right timing), 地利 (the right location), and人和 (the right people).  Kavalan was putting out the best new whiskey because King Car, the company that owns the Kavalan distillery, utilized all three elements to delicious advantage.

The Right Location – Great Water with Shorter Brewing Time

Although I don’t know much about making a good whiskey, I know a lot about making a good tea.  Like whiskey, making tea requires only two ingredients and one vessel: water, tea leaves or grain, and a tea pot or cask.  When a beverage has only a few ingredients, it’s harder to perfect and the quality of each ingredient is vital.

King Car chose Yilan as its production site, a decision that makes perfect sense because Yilan’s water comes from one of the top two cold spring resources in the world (the other spot is in Italy).  Pure, cold, clear and odorless, it’s the ideal water to brew a great beverage like whiskey or tea.

Taiwan also has the perfect climate, with its warm temperatures and high humidity, for making great whiskey.  On average, Taiwan is twenty degrees (Celsius) warmer than Scotland and these warmer temperatures mean a shorter brewing time.  In other words, Taiwan requires only about three years to produce a full-bodied, mature, complex scotch, half the time Scotland needs.

The Right People – Scottish Management and Sophisticated Consumers

As you can guess, Taiwan didn’t have much experience making whiskey. King Car was wise enough to hire Scottish management for Kavalan and utilize their expertise.

As you might not guess, Asians are among the most sophisticated whiskey consumers in the world.  According to my first-hand observations, Taiwan’s whiskey drinkers consume, predominantly, high-end whiskey.  Since Kavalan is exclusively sold in Taiwan and Japan, King Car has every reason to produce and market a top-shelf whiskey for the discerning drinker.

The Right Timing – Consumers Are Ready to Spend Money on Premium Whiskey

Taiwan has become an economic power in the world since it transformed itself from a country exporting labor-intensive goods to one producing high-tech products.   With the GDP ranked 19th in the world, Taiwanese people certainly have the purchasing power to afford a top-shelf whiskey.  The timing is right.  I have to admit that Kavalan’s going price, $60 for a 750ml bottle, is very high, especially for a low-brand-recognition whiskey like Kavalan.  And Kavalan probably needs to lower its price (or consumers need to accept the fact that the price for a local-brewed whiskey is much higher than a well-known Scotch).  Still, Kavalan’s taste and texture will make the sixty dollars easy to swallow.  Unfortunately, Kavalan is now only sold in Taiwan and three stores in Japan.  But I’ll keep you posted at Asia By Frida when Kavalan becomes available in the US and other countries.

You can be sure that when we went through customs, our bags contained a couple bottles of Kavalan.

Gan Bei! (Bottom’s up or, literally, Dry cup in Chinese)