Ahhh, a nice cuppa tea and a sit down. The sky may be falling in, but there's always time for a break, especially the kind that gives you a minute or two to yourself and something sweet to nibble on. Some people "forget to eat" when they're stressed (what a concept!). I forget lots of things (like the ironing, or a looming paper deadline), but I've not quite found a way to ignore a rumbling belly. A good thing, given I'm always left restored and better able to take on the world post-break.
You'll have your own perfect tea-and-munchie combination, of course. But to my belly, nothing beats a piping hot pineapple bun, fresh from the oven, accompanied by a rich, milky mug of yuan yang or "mandarin duck" tea.
Pineapple buns or bo lo bao are perhaps the most popular any-time snack in Hong Kong, Macau, and amongst the diasporic Chinese communities in the West. A soft, fluffy, yeast bun is crowned with a golden brown, "pineapple" cap that ranges from a sweet, crumbly "skin" (at a stingy bakery), to a buttery, almost streusel-like topping. Despite its name, no pineapples were harmed in the baking, because the "pineapple" here refers to the similarity of the bun's checkered top to a pineapple's skin. If you ask me, I reckon it's because the pineapple is a homonym for "prosperity comes" in Chinese, and so the more "pineapples" the Chinese can bring into their lives, the better.
The original pineapple bun provides an intriguing contrast of textures, which is further amplified by the addition of scrumptious extras. Many Hong Kong cafes or cha chaan teng will serve the bun hot from the oven, with a pat of golden butter melting down its sides (not that this calorific treat really needs any more sin). Some buns will have a pocket of creamy milk custard within, waiting to explode deliciously in your mouth. Other buns will enclose a bounty of barbequed, five-spice marinated belly pork or char siu. And yet other buns will arrive at your table boasting a nice, thick, slab of fragrant, pan-fried spam.
The traditional accompaniment to pineapple buns is the yuan yang. A bracing mix of coffee and milk tea, the two go so well together that they were christened after mandarin ducks – traditional symbols of love as the ducks mate for life and will die of loneliness if separated. (Similar to how the inspired pairing of guava paste and queso fresco—or any young, soft, white cheese – is affectionately termed “Romeo and Juliet.”) Since my Auntie Connie first introduced me to the joys of yuan yang, plain milk tea has never been the same. Why fight something that was meant to be?
Serious eaters will be happy to know that pineapple buns and yuan yang are plenty accessible. The next time you walk past a Chinatown, an Asian bakery, or one of those Hong Kong–style cafés or bistros—you’d be hard pressed not to find pineapple buns on the menu or shelves. Ditto the yuan yang. I’ve also found that regular milk tea is easily doctored with a shot of espresso to get a satisfying, hassle-free version of yuan yang. And if you’re the kind of person who pounds dough to relieve stress, here’s a recipe for sweet-crumbly, golden-brown, prosperity-beckoning, pineapple buns.