Bo Lo Bao
I don’t know exactly when I first tried a bo lo bao. I’ve eaten it for as long as I can remember because it was something my parents had always purchased. I was born in Manhattan but I soon after moved to New Jersey, which is where I remember most of my childhood. Living home in Jersey while my parents worked in the city, commuting back and forth, they would sometimes bring back some of these baos. We would also make sure to pick some up whenever we drove into the city for family events, as some of my family members live in New York City, down near Chinatown and Confucius Plaza. My parents actually grew up around Bowery and Bayard, and to this day, they will pick up fresh bo lo baos from the various Chinese bakeries that span the area. It’s predominantly popular in Hong Kong and Macau, so popular and commonplace that you can pick one up at your local Hong Kong Starbucks or 7-11! They even have an animated film about a pig named McDull who is the prince of pineapple buns. It’s certainly a valued food dish in their culture…because it tastes so good.
“Bo lo bao” is a sweet, soft bun topped with a crumbly, sugary topping. The Cantonese word, “bo lo bao” literally translates to “pineapple bun”. However, this isn’t to be mistaken for “pineapple cakes”, a Chinese sweet from Taiwan that actually contains pineapples. These baos are called a pineapple buns, yet, there are no trace of pineapples in the recipe! They don’t taste like pineapples either. However, the yellow crosshatched sugary coating that tops the bun is said to slightly resemble a pineapple. I personally don’t see the resemblance, but the name has stuck throughout its history. It’s made from four basic ingredients: flour, eggs, oil and sugar. The trick of making a crispy topping but soft bun depends on the right proportions and quality of the ingredients as well as the right duration of time to let the dough ferment, sometimes taking as long as 24 hours to make a pineapple bun, from mixing flour to baking. The topping involves mixing ingredients like sugar, flour, butter and eggs, brushing egg on top to give it more of its yellow color.
The bread is light, fluffy, and tender, especially when heated up or eaten fresh out of the oven. The golden yellow topping is deliciously sweet and crumbs tend to fall as you take a bite of the bao. They are often served with a slice of butter and eaten with tea or coffee. I would always eat it when my parents brought some back that day, or even some days later. One of the best parts about the bo lo bao was that you could save it for a few days and it maintained its impressively moist, plush crumb, especially when microwaved, making it taste like it was freshly made out of the oven.
Doing research on why the bread was like this, I came across a lot of bo lo bao recipes online. I discovered that a majority of the recipes called for “tangzhong bread”. I discovered tangzhong bread to be milk bread made with a process that originated in Japan. The tangzhong method involves briefly cooking a portion of the flour and water to make a paste, which is then combined with the rest of the ingredients. By using hot water, you can add more liquid to the dough because flour can absorb twice as much hot water as cold water. The super-hydrated dough yields bread that is not just moist but also fluffy because the water converts to steam, which acts as a leavening agent, creating rise. The extra water also increases gluten development giving the bread the structure it needs to contain the steam rather than letting it escape.
Making the connection to Japan through the bread making process, I uncovered another connection. In Japan, there is an eerily similar bakery product called “meron pan”. The “meron pan” translates to “melon bread” and it is also strangely named for its appearance rather than its taste, lacking any melon ingredients or tastes. It is, basically, a soft, rounded bun, covered with a crust topping like a cookie. It tends to have a much harder cookie surface compared to the pineapple buns which tends to be much more delicate and flakey. They are also known to be more dense, dryer and lighter in flavor compared to the pineapple bun. It seems to be a counterpart to the pineapple bun, however we never see these two pastry products sitting next to each other at any bakery.
Attempting to trace the roots of the melon pan in hopes of discovering any further connections to the pineapple bun, I came across the concha, a Mexican sweet bread that is basically a similar concept; a fluffy roll covered with a sweet, cookie-like topping. Interestingly enough, Spain and French bakers and French baking techniques influenced the creation of this Mexican pan dulce. This pan dulce, or sweet bread, also looked very similar in concept to the meronpan and bolo bao! Is it all a coincidence that these cross-cultural foods look so similar?
It seems that bread, tarts and cakes baked in an oven are a relatively modern addition to the cuisines of China, Japan and Korea. Previously, most Asian breads and sweets were steamed, boiled or pan-fried due to a lack of ovens in most kitchens. So it was with the introduction of ovens, and colonization by Western countries and increased Western influence during and after World War II that baked goods became a bigger part of Asian cookery.
In order to uncover more about the history surrounding the pineapple bun, I wanted to try and break down the actual Cantonese word “bo lo bao”. “Bo lo” translates to pineapple- it is named after a pineapple, so when did the pineapple enter the Cantonese imagination? According to Simmons in Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, following the discovery of the New World, various tropical fruits from the Americas found their way to Southeastern China. Pineapples, indigenous to South America, were most likely introduced from Malacca to Macau by the Portuguese. Portuguese traders first settled in Macau in the 1550s and in 1557, Macau was rented to Portugal from Ming China as a trading port, allowing them to import fruits such as the pineapple. The first Chinese accounts that mentioned pineapples date back to the beginning of the 17th century. From Macau, it reached Kwangtung and Hainan, then Fukien and Taiwan, where it was already known by the middle of that century. The pineapple is also known to have entered Burma from French trading. Then, “bao” translates to bun. This seems to be rooted from the Portuguese word, pao which means bread.
So many lines can be traced connecting similar foods throughout different cultures all leading back to the bo lo bao. It could be coincidence that all these foods are so similar, or they truly may have influenced each other. Portugal being right next to Spain also had Portuguese Sweet Bread, which was pao doce in Portuguese. Then pao doce can be traced right next door to France, where Spanish and French bakers help influence pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread like the concha. Then the word pao and pan are found in the “meron pan”, which is another similar bun made in Japan. It’s amazing to see the global connections and the general idea for a recipe or dish repurposed many different ways with different ingredients, designs, and tastes.
In China, the bo lo bao is predominatly popular in Hong Kong and Macau. In Hong Kong, the bolo bao is heralded as a staple of baking and a classic snack. You can step into any Chinese bakery, such as Tai Tung Bakery, and you will find one. The owner of Tai Tung Bakery located in Hong Kong is Tse Ching-yuen. The pineapple bun has been produced daily for more than 70 years now at the shop his father founded in the 1940s. Tse’s bakery was one of the proponents of including the technique to make the buns in the list of 480 items of living heritage announced in June 2014. According to Tse, when he started producing pineapple buns in Hong Kong in the 1940s, there was something similar in Japan, but the pineapple bun’s ultimate origin is unknown.
As to the origin of places like Tai Tung Bakery, I think Chinese bakeries in general were introduced and inspired by Westerners when they colonized areas of Southern China in the 19th and 20th centuries, like Hong Kong, Macau, and traded with the Chinese in these port cities, importing their cultures and European culinary traditions with them. Westerners, like Portuguese, British and French, have introduced foods like egg tarts (by the Portuguese, to Portuguese Macau and neighboring Hong Kong), and a wide variety of sweet and savory buns, pastries, turnovers, some cakes and cookies (by the British and French to Hong Kong). These baked introductions by the Portuguese, British and French to Hong Kong and Macau would lead to the creation and rise of popularity of Cantonese Chinese bakeries. This is why Chinese bakeries are always geographically associated with and renowned with Hong Kong and Macau, the former British (Hong Kong) and Portuguese (Macau) colonies.
Within the country, you can find Chinese bakeries scattered throughout Chinatowns across the United States. Even at my home in New Jersey in Monmouth County, there is a nearby Asian Food Market that has a bakery section selling pineapple buns. They label the bo lo bao as “sweet topping bun”. The Chinese bakery I usually shop at in Chinatown in New York is Manna House Bakery, where I can purchase one for a dollar. It’s amazing to see how such a cheap, simple snack could become so widely popular and distributed across the country.
Within my own house, bo lo baos have always strangely connected me to my culture, and have always reminded me that I come from a different place than most of the people I’ve grown up with. The bo lo bao, a childhood necessity to me, looked like a foreign object to most of my friends. Being Chinese-American going through most of my schooling in a town with predominantly White kids, around 80% of the population, I would always have a disconnect with the environment around me in terms of my background and roots to some extent. I felt disconnected from my own culture, unable to even speak or understand any Chinese! However, my parents and grandparents can speak Cantonese, throughout my family’s history in America, the language spoken at home has evolved over the generations.
My great grandfather, on my mom’s side, came to America in the mid-1940s and served in the US army in World War II. Being from Toishan, China he had to quickly learn the English language to survive! After the war, he was able to bring my great grandmother and grandmother to the United States. While they continued to speak Toishanese at home, my great grandmother and grandmother both had to learn the english language as they started their own business and opened up a Chinese laundry on the upper east side. My grandmother was fortunate enough to attend and graduate from Julia Richman High School. So very quickly, English was spoken a lot in my great grand parents’ home.
My grandfather, on the other hand, did not have the schooling that my grandmother did. And so Toishanese was all that he really spoke and even though he has been in this country for 70+ years, he still only speaks a little English (even though he understands a lot!) Like my great grandparents, my grandparents opened up their own business, a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Interacting with customers was my grandmother’s job as hostess while my grandfather was the chef. It made sense as she could speak Toishanese and English and Cantonese was becoming a 3rd language for my grandmother. My mother and her four sisters worked at the restaurant and picked up the Chinese language, both Toishanese and Cantonese, from their restaurant days. But at home, they all spoke English to each other.
And so with each generation, the Chinese language was spoken less and less at home. By the time my brother and I came along, English was spoken nearly 100% of the time at home. It was this way for my cousins as well. The only time we didn’t speak English and spoke Chinese was when it came to Chinese food. It was in the food that I found a way to relate to and truly appreciate my culture. So regardless of the disconnection I felt from growing up away from and being unable to speak or understand the Toishanese or Cantonese language, I would always somehow be connected through the various foods we ate rooted in our culture and our family history. Food becomes one of the only ways for me to communicate with my grandfather, with phrases like, “heeck fon” and food like “gai yick”, “jook”, “don tot” and of course, most importantly, the “bolo bau”.