Why I love Asian Bakeries: Part 1

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Step into an Asian bakery, it's walls lined with plastic display cases that showcase neatly lined rows of golden baked goods, and it becomes clear that this is not the average run-of-the-mill Australian bakery. No, not the kind where a shop assistant is the main connection between the customer and the product. This is a bakery where the customer is left to squander over and help themselves to whatever they desire. Think of it as a museum of sorts. A museum of bread (where, of course, you're able to buy the artefacts). 
This is what I love about Asian bakeries - their sense of self-sufficiency and other-wordliness. Their weird and somehow perfectly compatible flavour combinations (red bean and coconut, anyone? Or how about crispy taro?). Their school canteen-style self-service system, where you fill up your tray and take it to the counter to be tallied. The plastic display cases filled with rows and rows of golden, glistening, beckoning and at times unusual breads and buns. The buttery smell that wafts out the door upon walking past….
The display cases of a typical Asian Bakery

There is so much to choose from at these bakeries, and the best thing about them is that each item is ridiculously cheap, which is tempting when you have lots of loose change. Breadtop is probably the most well-known example of an Asian Bakery franchise, but there are so many other individually-run bakeries that are integral to any close-knit Asian community, which I've also found to be a lot cheaper than the bigger ones. I grew up on one of the Asian Bakery classics - the pineapple bun.  

Oh, the Pineapple Bun. Sometimes it's labelled 'crispy bun', or Bo Lo Bao in Cantonese. There's no actual pineapple in here, but rather the name comes from the criss-cross pattern that is created in top of the bun once it's baked, which resembles the outside of a pineapple. It's created by a layer of sweet, eggy pastry placed on top of the sweet bread dough just before baking, which cracks and turns a golden colour in the oven. The sweetness of this bun varies with different bakeries, but the taste is just about the same - a sweet, soft bread  that has an extra layer of texture and flavour added by the extra layer of crumbly topping.

Bo Lo Bao, or Pineapple Bun

Another favourite among my family are the sponge cakes, or cupcakes. My Por Por always bought these for me and my sisters (though I would normally have the Bo Lo Bao and my sisters the Sponge cake). These tall, fluffy cakes are a less-sweetened version of the traditional sponge, but the same lightness and air. They taste a little eggier, and are impossibly high and almost like a souffle cake (in height, that is; they don't fall after being taken out of the oven). Yum Yum Yum.

Sponge Cake

Sometimes bakeries will offer sweet or savoury dim sim popular at Yum Cha. Daan Taat literally means egg tart. These are Dad's absolute favourite Chinese pastry - a layer of pastry enclosing a wobbly, golden yellow custard filling that melts in your mouth, similar to the popualr Portuguese tarts, but a little more eggy and without the caramalised top. Sometimes the pastry is short and crumbly, other times it's flaky and crunchy with lots of lovely layers.

Daan Taat or Egg Tart

 Jin Deui

And my favourite: Jin Deui. These are little (or sometimes quite large) glutinous rice sesame balls, coated with sesame seeds and filled with a sweet red bean or lotus paste. Now, I used to hate red bean as a child growing up, and this was probably due to my exposure to red bean as a child being limited to the thick, gluggy red bean soups that were served at the end of a wedding or Chinese banquet. But in these little babies, red bean is my absolute, never-fail favourite filling of all time

I never really knew it when I first started eating them, but they're actually deep-fried. Which is probably not very good for you. It makes sense though, because when you bite into it you get an extremely satisfying *crunch* from the sesame , which collapses into a soft, sticky mess as you chew the glutinous dough to reach the sweet, smooth paste inside. Oh my.. Deep-fried Asian Heaven.  Especially when you can also buy them still warm from specialty Dim Sum shops (our favourite is Best Taste Dim Sim in Flemington/Homebush West).

Inside a red bean Jin Deui....look at that filling!

Part of the thrill of going into a bakery that sells these kinds of breads and cakes is that you never really know what interesting things you're going to find there, unless of course you visit them regularly. There are always the staples, like the Bo Lo Bao or Cup cakes mentioned above, as well as Cocktail Buns (sweet bread filled with coconut), and also hot dog and baked roast pork (char siu) buns. Custard buns are good, too, and most shops also sell a variety of sponge and roll cakes. I've only ever bought the more basic, classic buns, but one day would love to convince myself to try the more adventurous buns, such as the sweet potato, taro, sausage or crispy red bean bun. I think the reason I haven't tried them is that I'm afraid I won't like them, or that they will have a weird flavour. But one day I will. Ooh and also the sticky rice dumplings, or various sweets breads that come in multipacks. I've also encountered ham and corn buns in Japan, which were quite tasty...

If you've never been to an Asian Bakery before, make it something on your must visit list. The experience really is something quite different and exciting. Even if you do enter and find yourself somewhat overwhelmed at all the buns on offer, I'd recommend you try one of the ones I've mentioned, or simply walk up to the displays and pick one that both looks and sounds good. You never know, you just might discover something that will have you truly hooked. This is why I love Asian Bakeries.

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