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Sweet and Savoury Tales of China Baking

It’s just like being back in China, almost. I never thought I’d see pork floss buns or tuna cream doughnuts in Melbourne, but here they are, at the Chinese bakery franchise, Bread Top. They’re all over the city, but they didn’t exist here before I went to China. In fact, I don’t remember seeing them over there either!

China, the land of sweet bread and I’m not talking offal. Up the north, where I lived for two years, bread is commonly on the menu, in the freezing north, you need stodgy foods like potatoes, noodles and bread – deep fried, steamed, flat – to fill up and warm up. This bread can be oily or fluffy and white; it is nothing like wholemeal or multigrain of the typical Australian breakfast table.

My eyes (or should I say my sweet tooth…) lit up when I found Chinese bakeries. Common were Holiland (nothing biblical about it) and Eanin, where I found doughnuts, cakes and little packets of small sliced squares of bread. Oh joy! I could make sandwiches! I never thought I’d long for a sandwich, but when all you can find is hot food – winter and summer – oily, fatty and stodgy, a fresh, homemade salad sandwich seemed a delicious memory. I took the bread home and eagerly opened the packet. It had a slightly odd, crumbling texture but undeterred and with trembling hands I added a can of tuna. I brought it up to my drooling lips and took a large bite….

It was disgusting. The bread was sweet and crumbly, like a slice of stale cake. Needless to say, the tuna did nothing to improve the situation. I had another go later with strawberry jam but my stomach rebelled at the sugar overload.  Sandwiches had to wait till I found Subway in Xian.

Chinese doughnuts melt in the mouth a la Krispy Kreme (I like a chewy doughy doughnut, not those fluffy glazed nothings), Chinese cake is as light as a marshmallow and melts in the mouth (should cake melt?)  à la packet sponge.  There is little substance to Chinese baking.

I found the Holiland in Hohhot on my first trip into town. I’d caught the 63 bus outside the college and got off when I saw what seemed to be a supermarket. It was, and nearby was a branch of the Bank of China, a KFC, a printing shop where I got photos processed for sending home to my technophobic parents and the computer market. Nearby was a fabulous shop only selling long, full skirts in every conceivable fabric design. I would first visit Holiland where I’d stock up on sugary treats before beginning my day’s shopping.

When a customer enters, Holiland staff, without looking up from whatever they are doing, chant a short phrase (‘welcome to feast upon our baked goodies, beloved customer’) or some such. You take a tray and pair of tongs and choose the items you want. I usually chose a Danish or custard tart, and gazed with fascination and some degree of revulsion at the huge, vase-shaped pastries brimming with artificial cream. Once I saw a mother with her young son eating one, taking turns to scoop out the oily cream. That’s all it was. A big pastry bucket filled with artificial cream.

Towards the end of my two years in Hohhot, Holiland started selling coffee which made it an ideal coffee and cake shop.  When I say coffee, I mean a sachet of Nestlé instant and another of coffee whitener. Look, when the options are limited, you make do.

Eanin staff wore smart, airline cabin crew-style uniforms in dark green and blue.  As well as the usual puffy bun things, the bakery sold a range of biscuits which were totally delicious. I think Chinese bakers were much better at the twice baked stuff than the buns, cakes and doughnuts which crowded their shelves. These biscuits were sold in little plastic cylindrical tubs and I was addicted to the chocolate coconut roughs. They were five yuan (about $1) and I stocked up on 4 or five tubs whenever I found an Eanin.

Chinese bakers combine sweet and savoury with reckless abandon. After a day out in town, I would sometimes buy a kind of ‘roll’ at Holiland to take home for tea. This was an inevitably sweet, egg glazed roll with a kind of light tomato sauce, sweet corn, mayonnaise and spring onion pushed into it. Not exactly inside the roll nor sprinkled on top. It was odd but not exactly unpleasant, like most of China.

Pork floss is an ingredient I never got my head, much less my mouth around. Pork floss?  Floss as a concept just doesn’t team with any form of protein, in my book. I must confess I never tried the stuff because I asked what it was. Now, I’m quite fond of a BBQ pork bun, but dried, salty, fluffy pork on a cake was something I didn’t have the tastebuds for. For extra weirdness you can even get them wrapped in leaves of dried seaweed.

I must admit I’ve rather enjoyed myself here at the Bread Top in Melbourne. I ponder the name, perhaps they meant ‘Top Bread’, as in ‘Mate, this bread’s tops!’ but I think that might be putting a bit of an Australian interpretation on it. I'll ask next time I get a yearning for China or a craving for a sausage doughnut!