It’s always easier to blame another rather than to self-reflect and take responsibility for one’s own actions, to “otherize” another rather than to respect differences and find similarities. Yet, throughout history, we repeat the same pattern, over and over again. To what end?
Long-time readers of this dessert blog may remember our past attempts to debunk a widespread attitude in Australian media that “Asian desserts” were not worth the effort to understand and explore. In this vein, we had previously authored a lengthy guide to desserts commonly encountered during yum cha, and also, during a Chinese New Year banquet. Given the backdrop of increasing assaults worldwide on China as a country and against persons of Chinese descent, heritage, and appearance, we decided that we need to do our part to stand up for ourselves again, to demonstrate that we are not anything like how the media and politicians have chosen to portray us. So, for our next dessert guide, we traipsed through Manhattan’s Chinatown to hunt down some of the most delectable Chinese bakery desserts. It is our hope that this dessert tour will be a record of the history, traditions and diversity that underlies not only the desserts featured herein, but what it means to be Chinese, to be Asian, and ultimately, to be a citizen of this world, even when that world has chosen to increasingly alienate and shun. Wishing all a happy upcoming Chinese New Year!!
Pineapple bun (bo lo bao, 菠萝包)
- Where to try it in NYC: Any bakery in NYC’s Chinatown.
We don’t tend to remember our two years of living in HK with any kind of fondness, a time and place when the mantra “work hard, party harder” would be an understatement to the manic whirlwind of that city. All that said, we do miss the clean train system (as compared to the Hades that is NYC’s subway), the breathtaking hikes in the outer islands, the incredible proximity to the food havens of China, Japan, Taiwan etc, and also more locally, the accessibility to steaming bao buns you could grab on the way to work, after work, after a party etc. Aside from the char siew baos, we do miss the Pineapple Bao, a sweet bun with a sunshine yellow, sugar-encrusted shell made to resemble the surface of a pineapple. Note that contrary to its name, there is not a hint of pineapple in this bun.
Longevity peach bun (shou tao bao, 寿桃包)
- Where to try it in NYC: 46 Mott Street.
In Chinese mythology, peaches are treasured as a symbol of immortality. As such, Longevity Peach Buns often make a common sighting at significant birthday parties and anniversaries, for both Chinese people in the mainland, and the Chinese diaspora across the world. It is essentially a bao filled with red bean (or white lotus) paste, and tinged blush pink on the surface to resemble the eponymous fruit. We have only found it in one place in NYC’s Chinatown so far, but it is possible that they could be available as “custom made” desserts at other bakeries.
Egg tarts (dan ta, 蛋挞)
- Where to try it in NYC: Any bakery in NYC’s Chinatown.
Originating in Guangzhou, the Egg Tart is exceedingly ubiquitous now. You will find it paraded on a yum cha trolley as commonly as you will find it in any Chinese bakery. Yellow as the sun, round as the moon, jiggly custard and flakey pastry in one bite, it’s the perfect accompaniment to every afternoon tea. We particularly love the Macau-style tarts with a bruleed surface.
Coconut tarts (ye ta, 揶 挞)
- Where to try it in NYC: Tai Pan Bakery.
Egg tarts may get all the attention, but there’s at least one other tart that you should not overlook when visiting a Chinese bakery. With a slightly crumbly cake-like texture, the Coconut Tart is sweeter and more buttery, and often embellished with a glace cherry. Probably because of its incorporation of coconut, it is arguably more popular than the egg tart among the Chinese communities in South East Asia.
Egg waffles (ji dan zai, 雞蛋仔)
- Where to try it in NYC: We have spotted a cart on Canal Street, and another on Hester Street.
Back around 2017-2018, the NYC dessert scene exploded with a number of stores selling Egg Waffles layered with globes of of psychedelically-coloured ice cream and showered in rainbow sprinkles. Indeed, you may recall our own round-up review of this dessert trend. Strip away the Instagram-fuelled insanity, and egg waffles are in fact, of very humble origins. In Hong Kong, once you escape from the glittering coldness of the business district, it’s very easy to sniff out a crinkly old man or woman flipping egg waffles from a battered street cart. We have come across two such carts in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and we can tell you, nothing chases away the winter cold as quickly as a piping hot egg waffle in your hand. They remind us of our childhood joy at popping bubble wrap, albeit here, one pops little nubs of crusty yet soft eggy bubbles.
Wife cake (lo po bing, 老婆餅)
- Where to try it in NYC: Kamboat Bakery, or Double Crispy Bakery.
The Wife Cake is a dessert with a story. Legend has it that once long ago, in Ancient China, a wife voluntarily entered servitude in order to provide her family with enough money to treat her father-in-law’s illness, and her husband, out of sorrow, made the cake in memory of her. Happily though, the husband eventually saved enough money from the cake sales to buy back his wife. More of a biscuit than a cake per se, it is a flat pastry disc with a ground winter melon and almond paste filling. It’s not a particularly common sighting in NYC’s Chinatown, and we haven’t quite found one that we love to the same extent as those we have sampled in China itself, so the hunt continues!
Red bean pastry ball (hong dou su, 红豆酥) or salted egg pastry ball (dan huang su, 蛋黄酥)
- Where to try it in NYC: Bake Culture, or Tai Pan Bakery.
Similar to the Wife Cake and Longevity Bun, the Pastry Ball is a very traditional, historical Chinese dessert. The salted egg version — where the egg within is said to resemble the moon — is often eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival, alongside platters of mooncake slices. Other versions with a heart of red bean paste are more quotidian dessert fare.
Pineapple cake (feng li su, 凤梨酥)
- Where to try it in NYC: Bake Culture.
Once this pandemic is over, we are jumping on a plane – first to Australia, and then, well, all over the world. One of the destinations we would love to re-visit is Taiwan. After Malaysia, Taiwan would be our second favourite food destination. Everyday there is a veritable buffet. By comparison to the other bakery desserts on this list here, the Taiwanese Pineapple Cake is one of the more recent dessert creations, dating from about mid last century. It is a square-shaped cake made of a heavier shortcrust pastry, and filled with sweet tart pineapple jam. It is commonly bestowed as a gift because the pineapple is a symbol of prosperity. The South East Asian interpretation of it is less lardy, and more commonly found as a petal-shaped pastry or a round biscuit bite (see here).
Sponge cake (zhi bao dan gao, 纸包蛋糕 or ji dan gao, 鸡蛋糕)
- Where to try it in NYC: Kam Hing Bakery (for the original), or Spongies, or Sweets Bakery or Taipan Bakery (for more modern versions).
Broadly speaking, Chinese-style cakes are distinguishable from their European counterparts because they are not as saccharine nor as densely-textured, and they are the products of steam, rather than of the oven. The hallmark of a good Chinese Sponge Cake is that it will be squishable like a pillow, taste like an airy cloud in the mouth, and linger with just a fairy-light hint of sweetness on the tongue. Bonus points if it is served to you warm and toasty. Increasingly, you will find places that offer a variety of different flavours, sometimes layered with cream, other times rolled into a scroll, but we always think original plain is the best, no?
Mochi rice balls (mi chi, 米糍 or mi gao, 米糕)
- Where to try it in NYC: Fey Da Bakery.
Sticky rice-based desserts can be found across Asia, from kuih cakes and sticky mango rice in South East Asia, to tang yuan and nian gao in East Asia. When you say “mochi” in New York, most people immediately think of the Japanese dessert. Yet, the word “mochi” is a Chinese word. We didn’t spot it all that frequently in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but do look out for a Mochi Rice Ball. Rolled in a snowy blizzard of desiccated coconut, it can be filled with a creamy mango puree, red bean paste, or even, a crushed peanut filling. It has a softer texture than the chewier Japanese variety.
White (or brown) sugar rice cake (bai tang gao, 白糖糕)
- Where to try it in NYC: 46 Mott Street, or Double Crispy Bakery.
Made simply of rice flour, water and sugar mixed together and steamed, it’s difficult to describe the appearance of a Sugar Rice Cake. Sometimes, it reminds us of the foam that is created when waves crash on the shoreline. Other times, it’s as though someone carved out a section of a cave, complete with crystalline stalactites and stalagmites. It’s slightly sweet, moist and squishy. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, a white or brown sugar version is more common, and has a slightly sour taste. In Vietnam and Malaysia, we have seen pandan and coconut versions, and because coconut milk is used, it has a comparatively sweeter profile.