(Chang Chiung-fang/photos by Chuang Kung-ju/tr. by Geof Aberhart)
Taiwanese living abroad always hold a special place in their hearts for Taiwanese snack foods like braised pork rice, oyster omelets, and steamed sandwiches. But alongside these is another familiar friend-a doughy, buttery scent that stays with you once smelled: Taiwanese baked goods.
So what is so enticing about Taiwanese baked goods that keeps expats enraptured? And what new flavors do they have to offer in addition to the traditional flavors of green onion buns and boluo buns?
While Ms Lin was studying in the United States, her longing for Taiwanese green onion buns got so strong she decided to just make her own. She found a recipe online, and when they came out of the oven, steaming hot, looking perfect, and smelling wonderful, Lin chomped through four or five buns right away. She was surprised to discover, though, that once they cooled they turned rock hard. "You could practically knock someone out with them, but eating them? Not likely," jokes Lin.
Mrs. Chen, who years ago moved with her husband to Shanghai, would buy five or six loaves of naisu bread (naisu is a creamy mixture of egg, sugar, milk, and shortening) every time she visited Taiwan and store them in the freezer when she got back to Shanghai. She treasured each bite, reminiscing about home with every nibble.
The taste of home
If you ask overseas Taiwanese what the most iconic piece of Taiwanese baking is, most will likely respond with either green onion buns or boluo buns.
"In the past, a bakery's reputation was built on how good its green onion buns and boluo buns were," says Shih Kuen-ho, who teaches baking and is the head of the China Grain Products Research and Development Institute with over 20 years' research experience. Today, Taiwan's market for baked goods has become more international, with Japanese franchises like Yamazaki, Donq, and SunMerry setting up chain stores alongside Taiwanese franchises like Marco Polo, and shelves filling up with all kinds of bread and buns. Fluffy Japanese bread, long baguettes, heavy pumpernickel, layered danishes... all kinds and flavors are available, and it has begun to overwhelm the unique flavor of Taiwanese baking. But Taiwanese living overseas have opened their own bakeries, and all kinds of old favorites, including green onion buns, boluo buns, peanut bread, and azuki buns, fill the shelves, keeping alive the flavors of Taiwan.
Green onion buns are the long-reigning king of the Taiwan charts, and despite their age, they haven't changed much over the years.
"It's not easy to make a good green onion bun," says Wu Pao-chun, head chef at Pasadena Bakery and a baker with 22 years' experience. The main requirement for tasty green onion buns is fresh green onions, and since green onions don't refrigerate well and are very seasonal (with the best available at the time when winter turns to spring), opportunities to make truly great green onion buns are limited.
The art of boluo
The other icon of Taiwanese baking, the boluo bun, is in fact not unique to Taiwan, being commonly found in both Japan and Hong Kong as well. The origins of the boluo bun are already somewhat lost to the mists of time-some say it comes from Hong Kong, since the criss-crossed outside of the bun look like the skin of a pineapple, and the Cantonese word for pineapple is pronounced boluo in Mandarin. What makes this odder is that while Cantonese boluo buns contain naisu, BBQ pork, and a bunch of other flavors, there's no pineapple at all. Some say, though, that Taiwanese boluo bun is an evolution of Japanese Hami melon buns, which have the same kind of criss-crossed outside and look similar to their namesake Hami melons.
But regardless where they come from, green onion buns and boluo buns have made their way into the hearts and minds of Taiwanese everywhere. This is especially true of boluo buns, which have been subject to a raft of creative adaptations and flavors in recent years.
The Taipei City Bureau of Reconstruction has for two years held the "King of Boluo Buns" tournament, with the winner of the creative division of last year's contest being "pearl milk tea boluo," with stalwart of Taiwan's baking industry Fuli Bakery mixing the flavors of boluo buns, tea, and tapioca balls into a thick bread that looks like a glass of Taiwan's trademark pearl milk tea when cut horizontally. In both look and taste, this was not your grandmother's boluo bun.
La Maison du Danemark's "inkfish boluo" was another winner, taking first place in the flavor category.
"Ordinary boluo buns are sweet, so I decided to try and make a savory one," says head chef Cheng Chin-lung, who explains that his inkfish boluo was inspired by inkfish spaghetti. The first batch, though, tasted fishy, so he combined king oyster mushrooms, onion, inkfish sauce, and other ingredients, fried them together with basil, and was ultimately able to eliminate the fishiness and successfully mix the result with dough. To complete the package, Cheng added some inkfish powder to the "skin" of the boluo bun, which meant the whole bun, inside and out, was black. Inkfish boluo buns went on to greater popularity after the competition, and the store sells out every day.
La Maison du Danemark boss Kao Chi-chung also developed the "boluo danish," which is made up of 72 layers, first oil, then pastry, all in a little bun small enough to fit in your palm. This has gone on to become an even bigger seller and the trademark creation of the store. Cheng Chin-lung says that La Maison du Danemark can sell as many as 2,000 of these two specialties a day, and during the peak sales period in winter that number can climb as high as 3,000.
Creativity with skill
If these contests in the past two years have shown people the new, innovative face of Taiwanese baking, then when a team of master Taiwanese bakers secured a silver medal in this April's Mondial du Pain ("World Championship of Bread") contest in Paris, everyone could witness the world-class technical skill of Taiwan's bakers.
After being selected by the Taiwan Regional Competitive Baking Committee, Taiwan's representatives-Wu Pao-chun, Wen Shih-cheng, Tsao Chi-hsiung, and team manager Shih Kuen-ho-secured first place at the Asian Cup in Guangzhou last year, earning them entrance to the Mondial du Pain, considered the Olympics of the baking industry. After a year's hard graft and planning, the Taiwanese team made their first appearance at the Mondial du Pain, coming in as a dark horse against the defending champions France and runners-up Italy.
"The strong showing by the Japanese team left the Taiwanese baking world enormously excited," says Cheng Chin-lung, who took part in the Taiwan regional competition four years ago. Participating in the Mondial du Pain is the dream of every master baker, and so when the Taiwanese team took silver it not only stood as a testament to their ability, but also as an inspiration to others to chase after their dreams.
The Mondial du Pain consists of three categories-breads of the world, viennoiseries (sweet breads), and artistic creations. Breads of the world includes breads representative of each country, such as baguettes for France; viennoiseries include sweeter breads like danishes, brioche, and sandwiches; and the artistic creations section gives bakers a chance to show off their creativity in the medium of bread.
Each of the members of the Taiwanese team had their own specialty-Wu Pao-chun handled the breads of the world section, Tsao Chi-hsiung artistic creations, and Wen Shih-cheng viennoiseries. Between the three of them, in eight hours they had produced 200 pieces in total across six different kinds of bread.
For the breads of the world section, with its emphasis on "bread typical of the country represented," Wu won the judges' hearts with his smoked longan bread. In the viennoiseries section, Wen submitted creations including mentaiko sandwiches, a hazelnut-chocolate flavored piece, and a blueberry-tulip flavored creation. And in the artistic creations section, Tsao entered a pleasant, deeply Chinese styled creation named "Auspicious Lion Presents Charms."
Looking out at the world
The secret of these masters' success is the hard work they put in every day.
"There's no such thing as luck-behind that minute in the spotlight is a decade of toil," says Wu. In order to get the weight, length, width, shape, and flavor of their bread perfect under the pressure of a time limit, these bakers have naturally had to put in a lot of hard work and practice.
Just kneading dough is something that Wu has practiced for years. "I only really got it the way I wanted just before we went overseas," he says, explaining that kneading must be a natural rolling motion with the palms of the hands with no feeling of pulling or tugging. Power must be equal across both left and right hands, and each motion must be completed in one shot, because by breaking off and re-kneading you run the risk of kneading out the air in the bread and messing up the fluffiness and flavor of the end product. On top of all of this, you have to keep an eye on the amount of dough used to make sure that once it settles it is no longer than the contest-required 60 centimeters. Through practice, Wu was able to go from completing kneading one loaf in 45 seconds down to taking only nine seconds come contest time.
Even the artistic creations section, which is more about aesthetics, requires intense practice.
"Making bread art is substantially different than trying to do the same with chocolate or candy," says Tsao, as during the baking process, shrinkage and bubbling can cause the bread to change shape. Tsao trained with masters from Japan and France, learning a number of special techniques-for example, when making a three-dimensional shape like a cow or pig, you must first bake a base and then add an outside layer, baking it at low temperatures, in order to make sure everything holds its shape. In addition to this, different flours need different baking temperatures, mixtures must not be over-stirred, and the dough must remain soft and pliable. All of these are things Tsao had to get a feel for, and only after long and hard practice was he able to get what he was looking for.
Of course, adaptability is also crucial to victory. Team manager Shih Kuen-ho explains that while making bread itself isn't particularly hard, excelling at it takes talent and training. An expert baker must be well trained, skilled, experienced and adaptable. "At a contest like the Mondial du Pain, bakers must adjust to the particular heat and humidity of the location, as well as the flour provided by the organizers," he says.
Attitude decides flavor
Stimulated by multiculturalism and competition, Taiwan's bakers have made impressive strides in recent years.
In late 1987, Japanese chain Yamazaki opened its first store in Taiwan in the Sogo department store in bustling eastern Taipei. The arrival of Yamazaki sent shockwaves through the Taiwanese baking world, and from there on it would no longer be enough to just make filling snacks or make their wares half-pie.
The opening of Yamazaki had a huge impact on the young Wu Pao-chun, who was an elementary school student at the time. "After coming out of the ovens, the bread sold out before it even got onto the shelves," says Wu. He watched, dumbstruck, and kept asking himself "How do the Japanese make such good bread?"
Later, a friend who had studied in Japan asked Wu, "Why is Japanese bread so good, and why couldn't you do just as well?" That friend later took Wu to Japan to do an apprenticeship, solving the puzzle that had plagued him. At the same time, it was like waking from a dream: "Every time I had made bread in the past ten years, I had been doing it wrong!"
"Time and temperature are crucial," explains Wu. When he first started learning to bake, once he had finished mixing the dough, his teacher would test the temperature with his hand and decide whether or not it could be chopped into smaller pieces to ferment. Once Wu got to Japan, he found his teachers there would accurately measure room temperature and humidity, and even take into account the impact of mixing speed on dough temperature.
"I didn't just learn how to make bread, I also studied their attention to detail and their rigorousness," says Wu.
Like Wu, Wen Shih-chen also went through a period as a student of knowing how to bake, but not why each step was the way it was.
Little buns, big field
"In the past, bakeries weren't exactly the nicest places. They were small and had no air-conditioning, and with the ovens getting up to 200oC, people would be baking bread with no shirts on. It would go on like this for ten hours a day, and it would leave your head spinning," says the 37-year-old Wen, who remembers the difficulties of his early studies like they happened just yesterday.
"When I started learning to make bread, my motivation was simple-I liked eating it," he says. Even after making bread day in and day out, Wen says, he still didn't properly understand bread, and it was only after a long period of groping around in the dark that he began to realize how much was involved.
For example, the fermentation is crucial to the mouthfeel of the end product, and today bakers commonly use active dry yeast, which creates air bubbles and improves the springiness of the bread. But too much air can make the pH too high, making the dough too acidic and causing a loss of springiness, so you have to be very careful in order to make sure your bread is the best it can be.
"To me, bread is practically alive, and I have to pay close attention to every little detail of it," says Wen, adding that you need to use your hands to test the texture and fluffiness of the bread. You can only create truly good bread with a combination of skill and dedication.
Innovation and tradition
With their skills recognized internationally, these master bakers' wares have been selling well in Taiwan, but what they really want is to raise up the next generation of bakers and improve the state of the baking world in Taiwan.
"I want to change the baking landscape in Taiwan," says Wu. While Taiwan's baking industry may have outwardly appeared booming, as it faces growing competition local bakers are feeling unsure about their future. As they get older, master bakers lose their physical stamina, and instead of being considered treasure troves of experience are pushed out of the industry, leaving many without the drive to try and keep going.
"I want to make people realize that baking can be a lifetime endeavor, and that professionals can remain vibrant contributors their whole lives," Wu says. In order to keep improving his own skills, Wu has begun broadening his horizons and expanding into other areas, including learning Western cooking and getting involved in art. And he is more than happy to share what he has learned with the 14 others that work under him.
"I'll go learn something, get it straight, then the next day I'll teach them," he says.
Wen Shih-cheng is similarly enthusiastic about innovating and passing on knowledge. He explains that among the benefits of working in the kitchen of a large hotel are the excellent environment and equipment, the top-quality ingredients that are available, and having time to work on new things. Each month, he produces five new, innovative dishes, including soy milk buns (which include traditionally made soy milk and a filling of purple rice and azuki beans, and have a chewy, mochi-like texture), Mt. Fuji (which uses Japanese sweet cream and French chocolate beans), marble bread, and green onion buns. All of these are new inventions, and all have been warmly welcomed by customers.
Finding a Taiwanese flavor
Backed by the creative energy of these middle-aged master bakers, Taiwanese bakers are constantly coming up with new, gorgeous creations, but what do people consider the quintessential piece of Taiwanese baking? Along with green onion buns and boluo buns, what other timeless classics are there?
When Wu Pao-chun combined traditional Taiwanese smoked longans and red wine, he not only earned an Asian championship and a silver medal at the Mondial du Pain, he also drew attention to the smoked longans of Tainan County's Tungshan Township. Prices for the longans skyrocketed from NT$160 a catty to NT$300, and the "wine-steeped longan bread" went on sale in limited numbers and sold out every day, with waiting times of up to half a month for online orders.
But Wu is not one to rest on his laurels. While Japan has its own azuki buns and France has baguettes and croissants, the face of Taiwanese baking is less clear. At the moment, Wu is trying to work various iconic Taiwanese ingredients-like plums, kumquats, starfruit, and pineapples-into breads and buns in an attempt to create something distinctively Taiwanese to stand alongside green onion buns and boluo buns.
As we enjoy our flavorful Taiwanese breads, be they traditional or innovative, we should always remember the passion and dedication of the bakers behind them.
Wu Pao-chun's Winning Creation-Wine-Steeped Longan Bread
Head chef, Pasadena Bakery
Ingredients: Flour, water, red wine, longans, wheatgerm. No eggs, butter, or
Using naturally fermented dough-the lack of artificial agents prolongs its
shelf life and makes the bread retain its flavor longer-and longans from
Tainan's Tungshan Township that have been smoked for six days and five
nights, then steeped for an evening in red wine, you get the most flavorful
This loaf, weighing a kilogram, has won the 2007 Asian Cup and placed second
in the 2008 Mondial du Pain. Currently it is on sale in limited quantities,
with three stores and online orders selling only 300 a day.
Wen Shih-cheng's Hot Seller-Marble Bread
Assistant head chef, Bakery Shop,
The Westin Taipei
This bread uses Tanaka marble chocolate imported from Japan, which helps to
retain moisture, so that even after sitting for three days the bread remains
as moist as if it were freshly baked. More impressive is that it loses none
of its chewy texture, reminiscent of sponge cake, after being in the
Taiwanese white bread(tr. by Geof Aberhart)
Taiwanese origins of bread The origins of bread are lost to the mists of time. In 6000-year-old murals from ancient Egypt there are images of people using the sun's heat to make flatbreads, and in the 16th century Europeans discovered that rolls of wet dough, when left out, would rise and change in flavor-the effect of yeast fermenting. The relationship between modern baking and traditional northern Chinese flatbreads is unclear, but nonetheless the Chinese were also capable of making bread in ancient times.
About Taiwanese bread and buns
Modern baking methods were brought to Japan by Europeans, and then later to Taiwan from Japan. Cakes from Nagasaki in Japan are particularly well known, as Nagasaki was where the Portuguese first made landfall in Japan in 1543; this is also the source of baking in East Asia.
In the Romance languages of Europe, the names for bread share their etymology with the Latin panis, becoming pain in French, and pan in Spanish and Portguese. From the Portuguese comes the Japanese name pan. Influenced by their time under Japanese rule, Taiwanese speakers began referring to bread as pan also, with its sound similarity to the word "fat" (pang in Mandarin) leading to a common grandmothers' comment that children who eat plenty of bread will grow up big, white, and fat.
Types of bread
1) Hard breads: Characterized by their crunchy crusts and soft insides, these breads are simple and subtly flavored, with a strong scent of wheat and a chewy texture. These breads are generally significant parts of any meal in which they are used. German, French, and Italian breads fall into this category.
2) Soft breads: Boasting soft crusts and sweet innards, these breads are generally eaten with spreads or toppings. American and Japanese breads are good representatives of this category, and the mainstream of Taiwanese breads falls into this same group. These breads are also found in Europe, but generally as snacks.
Rejoice Bread Workshop
The origins of bread