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Chinese Pastries: Taiwanese Style

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 11 and 18

Family pastry shops are popular everywhere, Taiwan no exception. Nowadays, what with supermarkets and other large stores, there certainly are fewer of them; in fact, I'd call them an endangered species. Nonetheless, a few do exist.

One bakery I visited some years ago when in Taipei was called Kuo Yuan Ye. I was taken there to see a “real old-time Chinese bakery.” It still exists, and though taste remains the most important consideration, one descendent of the original family has made some very difficult decisions after illness, family disagreements, death, and bad business gave him a chance to control and survive the changing marketplace.

What had to be done to keep this family business alive was build a pastry factory, design a fan-shaped logo, and gain a bigger and better following. With all of this, he was able to maintain some tradition and keep traditional pastries, but made in a modern manner. Thus, the bakery I knew with all those wonderful hand-made items is now a chain of places--stand alones and small places in malls--almost all items made in a mechanized manner. The factory is outside of Taipei in Shihlin, and everything is transported to his many retail outlets. Most of the traditional pastries are joined by new ones based upon traditional varieties but tailored to more current tastes and lifestyles.

The traditional flaky crusts, egg yolks, taro, red beans, and other pasty fillings I remember are mostly made at holiday times. During other days they may look almost the same but they are lighter, lower in calories, with less cholesterol, and made in a more modern manner.

Do you or I need to go to Taiwan to taste new and more traditional pastries? Perhaps, we’d love an excuse to empty bank account and fill hands with tickets to Taiwan, but unfortunately, that is not necessary. The Kuo Yuan Ye Foods Corporation has at least eight retail stores in the United States. And, would you believe, they are even bringing coals to Newcastle, planning to open some newer stores in the People’s Republic of China, on the mainland. If you already have that ticket, don’t despair. Grab your bags and bucks and visit one of the many outlets in Taiwan. Taste the old elsewhere and their new and decide which tastes tickles your palate or stay at home and check your yellow pages to see if there is a pink and green Kuo Yuan Ye pastry shop in your neighborhood. The nearest one for me is in Chinatown in Manhattan.

If you do go to Taiwan, head for another place I was taken to, the Huang Ho Fa pastry shop on Kueiyang Street. You will find it in the Wanhua district, that is if you are lucky to find it at all. This tucked-away storefront is not easy to notice even when you are out to find it, the sign is very inconspicuous.

People say they want their traditional pastries, but not enough customers come to this very traditional bakery; they don't support a business that still abhors machines and tries to do almost everything by hand as does this particular hand-operated bakery facility. They use the old-fashioned technique of allowing kneaded wheat dough an overnight nap (some call it a rest), just long enough until it looks ready to be baked--be it three in the morning or later meaning that someone has to stay up most of the night to watch the dough.

Because things are done by hand, seasons and traditions are easily translated to different products appropriate for each. For example, Red Turtle Cakes are made on Lantern Festival day, other pastries made on their special days, as was the Taiwanese custom. For the birthday of the Lord of Heaven you'll find those red turtle treats as well as Glutinous Rice Balls. On local temple celebration days, the turtles reappear accompanied by Sticky Rice Cakes.

Traditional pastries made at Huang Ho Fa are not just for religious occasions. Life-cycle events have special pastry treats, too. When a newborn is one month old, those rice balls are appropriate, with the grandma on the daddy’s side bringing red ones, grandma on the mom’s side toting more peach-colored rice balls. When the tyke is four months old, there is a shouxian ceremony. If invited to one as I once was, bring shortcakes. They go around the baby’s neck to 'take away saliva' so that the baby stops drooling.

Parents or grandparents, at baby's first birthday make sure to have a dozen tiny turtles and two nice-sized turtles on hand. Think of a Jewish wedding and breaking the glass; the variation here is to get the toddler to step on and crush the big turtles. This symbolic big-turtle gesture wishes the tyke a long life while the small ones are for young guests, baby included.

Longevity is wished for in other ways. On a temple festival day, if early enough, you will see one or more towers of 'longevity peaches' or 'longevity noodles.' They are to bring to the temple. You might also see some animal cookies such as those in the shape of pigs or other animals. These are for temple sacrifices--a modern replacement for the sacrificial animals of the past.

Ordinary folk, the drop in customers that know and seek Huang Ho Fa out, are not what keeps this place in business. The temples of Taiwan do. They are good customers and thanks to them everyone can see, taste, and tell what used to be.

Should you have that ticket and take off to Taipei, buy some traditional turtle or other cookie molds; I have more than a dozen, three very special ones with illustrations of famous stories. Hand-carved in hardwood, buy one of those turtle molds (I never found one so you can treat me to one, too). You can also find wooden items used to stamp the tops of moon cakes or Kenna cakes. The former are obviously used for the moon festival, the latter for long flat pieces of dough stamped with circles; the kenna represent bars of gold wishing wealth.

Among pastries you might try, I recommend Kenna, Sticky Rice Cakes, Qigui or Beggar Turtle Cakes, Fagao or Rising cake, Taro Cakes, Glutinous Rice Balls, Grass Cake, Turnip Cake, Zongzi--or those sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, and of course, the longevity towers. You also might find Full Moon Balls, Short Cakes, Stepping Turtles, Baozi or steamed dumplings, a bride’s basket of sticky rice, the aforementioned Fagao, Longevity Peach Dumplings, New Year Cakes, Tong Yuan, a variety of different Moon Cakes, and some of the White Cakes known as Head Cakes.

Many of these pastries are used for life-cycle events, the last commonly brought or served on the seventh day after someone’s death as a food offering. At the funeral itself, fagao and sticky rice are a hope for better fortune and that all stick together through this time of trial and ever after.

Old and new Chinese pastry traditions can be enjoyed in Taiwan (some people say the traditions are stronger there than among Chinese ex-patriots elsewhere). Find out, try Taiwanese-style bakeries in Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, or wherever large groups of Chinese live and practice their traditional culture.

You can also taste them if you make them yourself. Items in earlier issues of Flavor and Fortune will help, particularly Volume 2 (3) and 2(4), as will cookbooks that specialize in snack foods. Our test kitchen editors, Wonona and Irving Chang along with the Kutschers wrote a wonderful one called Chinese Dessert, Din Sum, and Snack Cookbook; it has many wonderful recipes, even some super sauces, spreads, and toppings.

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