Friday, 31 January 2014

Nice Buns

While showy American cupcakes and fancy French patisserie continue to garner the attention, I've always had a soft spot for a good bit of Chinese baking. From the sausage stuffed buns to the deep fried dough twists; the bean paste parcels to the almond and coconut biscuits, I haven't yet met a bake I haven't liked.

As well as being delicious - who could resist a cuisine that manages to combine the charms of both flaky sweet pastry with savoury roast pork in the same morsel - the buns and cakes are also something of a bargain. While a bag of Pierre Hermes finest pale jade macarons may set you back about the same amount as a semi-detached in the Surrey suburbs, a custard tart, with its flaky crust and luminous egg filling, clocks in at under a quid; and can taste equally good.

The best Chinese pastries I have eaten were while in Hong Kong, where a constant steam of lurid green pandan sponge cake and sweet chestnut tarts, all washed down with little cups of oolong tea, kept us going through the dark hours between dim sum and dinner. And while it may be impossible to quite recreate the same atmosphere of eating sweetmeats in Kowloon Park, here are some good spots on these shores to find a decent Chinese cake.

London’s Chinatown remains the countries busiest and best. I still feel that little frisson of excitement every time I leave the bustle of Soho and pass through the ornate gates on Gerard Street. And while it might be fashionable to schlep all the way to Docklands or Queensway for a good meal, I still find my self returning to visit the maze like Loon Fung supermarket for all my cooking essentials before stopping for a well deserved bun and a bubble tea.

My favourite place to stop for takeaway treats has always been the Kowloon Bakery, probably for no better reason than nostalgia as this was the first Chinatown bakery I ever visited, owing to its prime position at the top of Gerard Street. While the cakes and buns have always been decent, and the gruff staff friendly enough, I have always been curious to try somewhere else, lest I have been walking past an unearthed gem all these years.


On a recent trip I decided to test the, imaginatively titled, Chinatown Bakery, a serve yourself bun shop which was in the process of having a fish shaped waffle maker installed. Crowds had gathered at the windows to watch two hot and irascible looking men trying to make sure the irons rotated properly while prising the waffle fish from the moulds. The upshot of this was that trays of their offerings were being given away freely until their technique had been refined.

The fish were tasty, but I was really here for some of the glazed buns behind the Perspex shutters. Tray and tongs in hand I wound my way around picking up a selection of dough-based treats that included, amongst others, a wife cake, a gift for the absent Ewing that I hoped would get me back in her good books.

Not wanted to give my old favourite the cold shoulder, and worrying the new pretender wouldn't live up to its promises, I went back and bought another small selection of buns and cakes from Kowloon, for comparison later.

While I hoped the wife cake would pick up a few brownie points, I knew the Ewing’s real favourite were the pork buns; a pillowy and slightly sweet dough crammed with bright red shreds of spiced pork. Needless to say that our taste test proved utterly inconclusive, with me preferring the Kowloon Bakery, while she like the Chinatown better. Nevertheless, they were both rather good.

Sadly, the wife cake, with its winter melon paste filling, wasn't such a hit. The pastry was light, but the sticky filling was sweet enough to make your teeth throb, while the whole thing smelt like the perfume counter at Selfridge's.

One of the real reasons I think I’m so fond of Chinese baking is the liberal use of vegetable shortening, or even better, lard. This gives many of the cakes and cookies a lovely short texture, as can be seen nowhere better than with the walnut cookie. These are nothing like their chewy American brethren, instead possessing a friable dough that crumbles into a buttery rubble as you bite into it. Most walnut cookies only seem to contain a nut or two on top, as more of a gesture, but the real point is the glorious lightness that leaves your lips and fingers with that tale tell sheen when you’ve finished eating. A must order.

We also had pandan cake, a subtle and light sponge with the subtle taste of the pandan, or screwpine, leaf, and still one of my favourites with a cup of tea. Far richer, but still good, were the coconut buns, glossy and bright with their yellow egg wash topping and chewy, rich centres.

Kowloon on Urbanspoon

I couldn’t possibly have gone to the North West and not paid at least cursory visits to the Chinatown’s of Manchester and Liverpool. The weather in Manchester was unseasonably warm and humid, and sitting on a bench outside the famed arch, along with the many locals selling long distance phonecards and sitting playing backgammon, it did feel more like central Hong Kong than central M1.

The most famous bakers in M1 is Ho’s, and we headed over there after our blow out lunch at Simon Rogan’s the French. As well as pastries Ho’s are known for their special occasion cakes, and pictures of lurid fruit and cream dotted creations line the walls. While I was keen to buy something bright green and heart-shaped and covered in piped roses, the Ewing was being far more sensible and insisted we stuck to pork buns.

The buns made a fine evening snack fine; a bit dry (possibly because we bought them late in the afternoon) and lacking somewhat in filling, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d done them (and myself) somewhat of a disservice by not trying at least one of their spring onion fritters, satay beef pasties or sweet bean dumplings.

I was determined not to repeat my error when visiting Liverpool, and after a visit to the impressive Chinatown gate, the second tallest outside China after Washington D.C, we made our way to the Bonbon Bakery on Berry Street.

This was very much in the mould of the Chinatown Bakery in London, with trays and tongues being provided so you can help yourselves to the buns behind the Perspex sliding doors. Of all the bakeries, I was most excited by their selection, and after choosing our boxful of assorted goodies we made our way to Crosby Beach to eat our spoils.

A keen Easterly wind meant we were soon relegated to the car to eat our treats, to avoid mouthfuls of sand along with our pastries, but it proved well worth the crumbs in the foot well.

I loved the pineapple bun (sadly not containing any tropical fruit, but so named because of the criss-crossed glazed pattern on top), crammed full of sticky char siu; while the Ewing felt similarly pleased with her plain version. The sesame studded pork puff was crisp and rich, while the chicken curry bun was a triumph, stuffed with properly spicy, tangy turmeric enriched sauce and plentiful chunks of chicken. Even the walnut cookie, eaten days later when I found it, slightly crushed, at the bottom of my bag was as masterful as a biscuit could be.

BonBon Bakery on Urbanspoon

The final stop on my cross-country bun hunt was on our recent visit to Birmingham. While the Second City's Chinatown doesn't have an arch to welcome you, there is a concrete pagoda positioned on the nearby Holloway Circus roundabout.

As we had been to Caffe Chino, standing opposite, for bubble tea the day before, we decided to take a punt on the wore workmanlike Wah Kee Bakery for breakfast.

Inside is lined with rows of wooden cabinets, all topped with trays of savoury and sweet buns and cakes under Perspex domes, while a selection of more ornate cream cakes and gateaux sit in refrigerated cabinets at the front.

Again, tongs and trays are provided for you to help yourselves. We chose one savoury bake, to eat there and then for a belated breakfast, and one cake to enjoy later when we were back home.

My ham and spring onion bun, topped with melted cheese, was pillowy soft and balanced perfectly between sweet and salty, with a good amount of allium punch. The Ewing's char sui bun was equally fresh and glossy and crammed full of lovely, lurid porky filling.

The reaction to the Swiss rolls was a little more mixed; I loved my green pandan number, stuffed with it's slightly salty margarine 'butter'cream and finished with a drift of toasted coconut, but the Ewing found her chocolate version rather dry and dusty.

From the porky parcels and flaky cakes I still pick up every time I'm near London's Chinatown, to the inauspicious surroundings of the Bonbon Bakery - with its snacks as fine anything I've eaten on the Streets of Mong Kok or San Francisco’s Stockton Street - my love for Chinese baking remains undiminished.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Here's to many more bun-based adventures in the New Year.

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