14 Chinese Baked Goods You'll Want to Sink Your Teeth Into
Get to know (and make) some of the pastries you’ll find at a Chinese bakery, restaurant or dim sum cart.
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Chinese baked goods are a delicious window into a world with a beautiful history — and a very food-centric culture. Many of the Chinese breads we think of now as traditional and Chinese in nature actually originated as byproducts of imperialism.
Many of the most popular baked goods that we see in the U.S. are Cantonese in origin. When the British empire colonized Hong Kong in 1842, they introduced pastries and ovens to what was historically a fishing-focused village. Although British colonization had many negative repercussions, culinarily speaking, it also resulted in the creation of a unique food culture where British and Western foods were changed to suit a Chinese palate. The people of Hong Kong adopted a tradition of afternoon tea and taking mid-day food breaks, which led to the creation of a plethora of delicious baked goods that were fluffy, light, not too sweet and not too salty when compared to their British counterparts. And as Chinese immigration increased to the U.S., Chinese-style baked breads came with them.
Chinese breads come with dozens of sweet and savory fillings and are thoughtfully decorated and named. Ingredients like tropical fruit, custard, red bean, coconut, salty lava yolk, green onions, sesame seeds, lotus paste and barbeque meats are just a sampling of what is found in these pastries. These baked goods can be found in restaurants, bakeries and street stalls but because there are so many items, even seasoned Chinese food connoisseurs can get overwhelmed, which is why we've put together this guide to popular Chinese baked goods, whether you’ve been itching to make your first foray into a Chinese bakery, or looking to add to your weekly bakery haul.
Hong Kong Egg Tarts
When it comes to egg tarts, there are two types. There’s the Portuguese egg tart which has a light whitish, caramelized top and a thin layered crispy pastry shell. And then there’s the Hong Kong-style egg tart that has a smoother, bright yellow filling and a flaky crust that crumbles with each bite. Both options can be found at dim sum restaurants, as well as Chinese bakeries.
Hong Kong-style tarts have a silky, egg custard center. The dish originated in Canton (now Guangzhou) around the 1920s, due to the influx of British people during the colonization of neighboring Hong Kong. The Hong Kong-style egg tart filling is made with eggs, sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Cantonese bakers were inspired by the British egg tart and made their own version with a much denser crust using lard, butter and sometimes shortening.
The Portuguese egg tart is essentially a caramelized version of Hong Kong’s. These tarts have a flakier crust but have a smoother, lighter filling and a broiled top similar to that of a creme brulée. The custard is sweet and eggy with a vanilla aftertaste.
These days, egg tarts come in several variations, thanks to creative experimentation. Modern versions include milk tarts, which are made using only egg whites, as well as tarts flavored with milk tea and matcha. Some are even bulked up with boba pearls and tropical fruit.
Get the Recipe: Hong Kong Egg Tarts
Feng li sun, or Chinese pineapple cakes, are a famous pastry in Taiwan. Although they are usually given as gifts during Lunar New Year, the cakes are also given as well-wishing presents or engagement gifts since in the local Taiwanese dialect pineapple sounds like "to come forth, prosperous and thriving," which conveys the hope that many children will be born to the family. Gifting pineapple cakes also symbolizes prosperity.
Pineapple cakes are so popular these days they are considered a symbol of Taiwan, and can be found year-round in Chinese bakeries. The cakes are usually rectangular with a buttery, shortbread-like crust. Inside, you’ll find a pineapple filling similar to a thick jam or pineapple slices mixed with winter melon. Some modern bakeries use pure pineapple to make fillings. Some bakeries have ventured out with more experimental variations filled with cranberries, strawberries and even preserved egg yolks.
Get the Recipe: Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes
Originating from Hong Kong, sausage buns are the Chinese equivalent of an American hot dog. There are several variations of Chinese sausage buns, but the most traditional are the fluffy, white steamed ones stuffed with a link of cured Chinese sausage in the center. The baked variation uses a fluffy milk bread wrapped around a hot dog and topped with scallions and sesame seeds. The sweet milk bread complements the salty, savory sausage and the sesame seed topping adds a nutty flavor.
A more modern version of the Chinese sausage bun is known as the flower hot dog bun, which has grown in popularity in recent years, and is shaped whimsically to look like a flower.
Get the Recipe: Hot Dog Flowers
Mooncakes come in various shapes and sizes, with both sweet and savory fillings. To form the intricate designs the pastries are known for, they are pressed into unique molds before baking. Traditional mooncakes typically consist of a thick filling made from lotus seed paste or red bean, and contain salted duck egg yolks. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges paired with a cup of tea.
There are also many modern variations of mooncakes. Some come in flakier, snow skin white or even ice cream sandwich crusts. Some include playful fillings such as taro, lychee, melon, sweet potato, pineapple, durian, coffee, lava custard, peanuts, black sesame, matcha, yogurt, jelly and ice cream.
Get the Recipe: Mooncakes
Jin deui, also known as sesame balls, are a staple of dim sum culture. The hollow balls are made with a sticky rice flour dough, filled with a sweet paste, rolled in sesame seeds and fried until crispy on the outside, but soft and chewy, like mochi, on the inside. When served at dim sum, the dish is typically filled with lotus paste, lava salted egg yolk, red bean or a savory meat filling. They can also be found plain. The origins of the jin deui can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. Depending on the region in China, jian deui comes in several variations and can go by different names.
Get the Recipe: Chocolate Sesame Balls
The pineapple bun is the quintessential Hong Kong pastry. Despite their name, they don't contain any pineapple, but are named after the checkerboard pattern of the buns’ sugar crust and its resemblance to the skin of the fruit. The buns are made with just four ingredients — eggs, oil, sugar and flour.
The bun’s outside is crispy and sugary, while its inside is pillowy soft. In Hong Kong, the buns are usually eaten for breakfast or with afternoon tea as it is commonly eaten alongside a cup of milk tea and served with a slab of butter inside the bun. Pineapple buns can also be found in bakeries sans butter, and on dim sum carts. There are also pineapple buns that are filled with custard, lava egg yolk, barbeque pork, crushed pineapples or even a red bean paste.
In the U.S., many Hong Kong-style restaurants use pineapple buns similarly to hamburger buns, pairing the lightly sweet pastry with pork chops, sausages, fried chicken or other meats inside for a sweet-savory meal. Many modern Asian dessert shops have even taken to using pineapple buns as ice cream sandwiches.
Gai daan jai, or egg waffles, are an iconic Hong Kong street food that literally translates to "little chicken egg." The snack was first popularized in the 1950s and is said to have been invented by shopkeepers who needed something to do with the broken eggs customers refused to buy. Although recipes vary, the waffles are typically made with eggs, milk, flour, baking powder or coconut milk, and cooked in a special waffle iron.
Traditionally, the egg waffle is served plain, with a vanilla flavor. These days, however, several vendors also offer the waffles in flavors like matcha, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, black sesame, along with a range of toppings, such as mochi and sprinkles. They’ve also been used as cones for ice cream sundaes, the "bread" for fried chicken sandwiches and as a base for various fusion desserts.
Char Siu Bao
There are three kinds of char siu bao. All three types of buns are filled with char siu, or barbecued pork.
Char siu is made by slow roasting pork tenderloin. Then, the pork is chopped and tossed with a sweet-savory blend of oyster, hoisin and soy sauce; sugar; roasted sesame seed oil; rice vinegar; shaoxing wine or dry sherry and more.
Steamed barbecue pork buns have a white exterior. They are denser, but pillowy soft with each bite. Baked char siu baos are topped with a sugar glaze before baking, which gives them a golden-brown color. The third variation is a more modern version that many dim sum restaurants serve now — a baked char siu bao with a flaky, sugary French-style crust.
Get the Recipe: Baked Pork Bun (Char Siu Bao)
There are several variations of sponge cake at Chinese bakeries. While Western-style sponge cakes are sweet and fluffy, Chinese variations are jiggly and not too sweet. Taiwanese and Chinese versions tend to be cut into squares and sold as pastries or used as a base for full-sized cakes. Their textures tend to be lighter than angel food cake.
There’s also a smaller pastry sponge cake version that originates from Hong Kong known as a paper wrapped sponge cake, where each pastry is shaped into an oversized cupcake. The paper sponge cakes are baked and served with the parchment paper around them to a golden-brown exterior. The inside is light and fluffy. The sponge cakes are made by separating egg yolks and whites, and whisking them separately. They only require five ingredients: eggs, cake flour, corn starch, sugar and melted butter.
Pork Floss Buns
Rou song bao, also known as pork floss buns, are a popular bread found in Cantonese, Chinese and Taiwanese bakeries. Pork floss is a delicious and nutritious topping made from dried pork shoulder, soy sauce and sugar that tastes like sweet pork jerky, but has the texture of floss-like strands. It’s used in several dishes like tofu, rice and congee. Pork floss can be found on sweet buns or in sandwiches filled with mayonnaise in bakeries. The buns are savory, with a hint of sweetness.
Swiss rolls are another staple in Chinese bakeries. Unlike Chinese sponge cakes, Swiss rolls are much denser as they are baked in a flat sheet, and then rolled around a sweet filling. The cream filling is made with whipped shortening, sugar and a pinch of salt. Although the plain egg Swiss roll is the most traditional, they also come in various flavors such as black sesame, mango, coffee, orange, matcha, strawberry and more. Although the origins of the rolls are unclear and believed to be somewhere in Central Europe, the popularity of the Chinese version is a direct result of the colonization of Hong Kong by the British Empire.
Chinese Swiss rolls are lighter than Western-style versions, and nowhere as sweet.
Wife cakes, sweetheart cakes or marriage pies, are traditional Cantonese pastries that have a flaky, thin crust and are filled with almond paste, sesame, five spice powder, candied winter melon, glutinous rice flour, coconut and vanilla. The pastry is made with lard, which gives it its flaky, delicate texture. The cake itself is crumbly and mildly sweet, with a slightly gooey center. Wife cakes are traditionally given by a groom to his bride’s parents following an engagement.
Nai Wong Bao
Nai Wong Bao, or yellow milk buns, are a dim sum favorite. While not baked, per se, these treats are steamed to fluffy, pillowy perfection. Wong refers to the bao’s bright yellow, gently sweet and creamy filling, while nai refers to the milk that enriches the dough. Served warm, fresh from the steamer basket, these baos, which pair well with a hot cup of milk tea in the morning, are a true comfort to bite into.
Get the Recipe: Nai Wong Bao
Snow Skin Mooncakes
Snow skin mooncakes (Bing Pei Jyut Beng) are a soft and chewy mochi-like treat stuffed with a variety of dense, sweet fillings. Sharing mooncakes is an important part of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, sometimes called the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival. Although the cakes traditionally use a wheat flour pastry, cakes with a rice flour dough that’s steamed, not baked, began appearing in Hong Kong in the 1960s and are now popular in China and elsewhere. If you’d like to make mooncakes at home this is an especially easy version to try. Although these treats can feature a variety of fillings, we streamlined the recipe by using store-bought sweet red bean paste, one of the most popular mooncake fillings, so you can focus on making the snow-like skin. A microwave quickly cooks the combination of sweet rice flour, regular rice flour and wheat starch that forms the soft, easy-to-work dough. The intricate designs stamped on top of mooncakes are easy to achieve with an inexpensive plastic press mold. You can have a batch of beautiful homemade mooncakes ready in about an hour.
Get the Recipe: Snow Skin Mooncakes