• A bo lo bao from Kam Wah Cafe - said by many to be the best source in Hong Kong. (Instagram / eunicedo)Source: Instagram / eunicedo
One of these sweet "pineapple" buns - bo lo bao - with a slice of frozen butter and a cup of milk tea is the ultimate Hong Kong snack.
Rachel Bartholomeusz

15 Jan 2019 - 2:42 PM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2019 - 4:15 PM

Just as there is no moon in mooncakes, no donkey in donkey rolling on the ground, and no fish in fish-fragrant sauce, there is no pineapple in a pineapple bun.

Chinese dishes don’t always do what they say on the tin, and Hong Kong’s favourite snack is no exception.

The iconic bo lo bao, or pineapple buns, are named instead for the criss-cross pattern on their golden crusts, thought to resemble the fruit.

They are so central to life in Hong Kong that they were deemed part of its intangible cultural heritage in 2014.

“Pineapple buns are just a part of our daily lives. Some people eat it every day for breakfast... sometimes afternoon tea,” says Hong Kong local Silvana Leung, director of operations for Hong Kong Foodie tours.

The sweet buns are a fitting symbol for this east-meets-west city, a blend of European and Asian cooking techniques.

Invented mid last century, when Hong Kongers developed a taste for western cakes and bread during British colonial rule, the pineapple bun gained popularity as a local alternative. “Many cafes started selling them to earn extra revenue for their takeaway business,” says Leung.

The buns are sold at every bakery but are also a mainstay of Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng or tea houses. Originally, these diners sought to recreate western dishes for local palates at affordable prices, but now these fusion foods – from steak on spaghetti to pork chop sandwiches – are uniquely Hong Kong.

Bo lo bao is famously labour-intensive, and Hong Kong’s government is seeking to preserve the traditional way to make them. The soft, sweet bun dough is mixed and shaped into balls, and then covered with a thin layer of butter-rich pastry, which is scored and washed with egg before baking. This crackles and puffs up to form a crumbly crust, while the inside stays moist.

If you want to eat it like a local, hold it with two hands and munch into it like a hamburger, says Leung. They’re commonly paired with a milky cup of tea, and a frozen slab of butter wedged inside that melts into the hot bun – a variation known as a ‘pineapple butter’. Others include fillings of red bean, jam, custard, a pork chop, or even char siu.

Kam Wah Cafe is frequently lauded as having the best buns in Hong Kong, but Leung says your favourite is often just your local.

“I think every Hong Konger has their favourite place to get their pineapple buns, even if it may not necessarily have the ‘best in Hong Kong’. People usually just go to a convenient bakery to grab them, it may be on our way to work or around where we live.”

In Australia, your best bet for finding them hot out of the oven is at Chinese bakeries, such as the popular chain Breadtop. While there are Hong Kong cafes to be found here, like the wonderful Ching Yip Coffee Lounge hidden at the top of Dixon House in Sydney’s Chinatown, few offer pineapple buns because of the effort involved in making them daily from scratch.

And a hot pineapple bun is key, says Leung. “Good pineapple buns have to be fluffy and light and, most importantly, served fresh out of the oven and warm.”

Watch Donal's Asian Baking Adventures with double episodes Sundays at 8.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) from Sunday 8 September, with streaming after broadcast on SBS On Demand.

Lead image by eunicedo via Instagram.

More bun baking
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“These delicious buns are traditionally eaten in Sweden on Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday, as it’s known in Scandinavia), but they’re so popular that more recently they can be found in bakeries all year round. A light cardamom-spiced bun is filled with a soft marzipan mixture and plenty of sweetened whipped cream.” Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Scandinavia

Wasp nest buns (osyne gnizdo)

I’ve always loved the name of these, and there has always been something dangerously attractive about the whole wasp element of this dish. Also, these buns looked very much like the stuff we’d see in foreign films. Were there Swedish cinnamon rolls in Ingmar Bergman films? Maybe not. Were they in the incredibly popular Astred Lindgren Karlsson-on-the-Roof cartoon adaptations? The Moomins?! Either way, they looked exotic and fed my fantasies of living somewhere abroad when it was still a risky and unrealistic thought.

Blueberry buns (mustikkapiiraat)

Berries herald the arrival of summer in Finland, and the fruits of the northern forests include lingonberries, cloudberries, and bilberries, which are wild blueberries, often used to make the famous mustikkapiirakka (Finnish blueberry pie). These buns are similar to the pie, but are often eaten for breakfast with coffee. The sticky blueberry topping oozes over the dough, which is dotted with raisins and laced with cardamom – a popular spice in baked treats throughout the Nordic countries.