Gai pie, a Hong Kong-style chicken pie, is one of those dishes you don't order often, but when someone else does you remember how tasty it is and wonder why you don't have it more often. Melburnian Rachel Leung, who grew up in Hong Kong, puts it this way: "Gai pie is the unassuming cousin of pineapple bun or egg tart, not as popular but a staple at cafes."
I remember this unassuming treat when mum's friend sends us four gai pies. I find myself reaching for one, then another, and soon I'm reheating my third pie in the toaster oven (I check with my family first, of course, they didn't want any).
"Gai pie is the unassuming cousin of pineapple bun or egg tart, not as popular but a staple at cafes."
As I scarf them down, I recall when dad would occasionally buy us baked treats after we finished the dreaded three hours of Mandarin school on Saturday mornings. Gai pie was a perfect 'in the car' snack. The palm-sized pie had a sweet shortbread-like pastry to contrast the creamy savoury filling which featured oyster sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil. The pastry used lard instead of butter which gives it a distinct flavour. It was enough to be satisfying (unlike air-filled popcorn or a piece of fruit) yet small enough as not to ruin our appetite for lunch.
Where some pies would have a generous amount of filling to be a substantial lunch meal, Leung explains gai pie has "just enough so you can taste it and definitely no chunky chicken or too much sauce." People usually have it for breakfast or as an afternoon snack at a cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style cafe) with Hong Kong milk tea or Leung's personal favourite beverage yuen yeung (a mix of coffee and tea).
Because pastries are commonly sold at a cha chaan teng, baking gai pie at home is largely unheard of. "Most people in Hong Kong don't have an oven at home because they live in a small apartment," says Flora Cheung, who studied in Melbourne and has moved back to Hong Kong to work as a dietitian.
"People who live in apartments have small kitchens, although those mini toaster ovens have become more common. My sister has one but she only uses it to bake chicken or veggies because it usually doesn't have precise temperatures so it isn't too great for making gai pie or cake."
So where did gai pie originate if not from the kitchens of home cooks? Virginia Chan, the founder of Hong Kong food tour company Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Tours, tells SBS Food that during the colonial period, British chefs introduced pie-making to some high-end Chinese restaurants in hotels. "The Chinese chefs then took the chicken pie and localised the taste for the Hong Kong market and they were introduced into cha chaan tengs, which are beloved and frequented by locals."
The chefs did this by substituting flour with cornstarch to make the roux and chicken breast with thigh to make the filling. Thigh fillets were flash-fried "to ensure maximum tenderness", tossed in Chinese seasoning and mixed with peas and ham instead of potatoes and mushroom because the former keeps better in Hong Kong's humid climate.
In Australia, gai pie is served at yum cha restaurants. Once restrictions have eased and I return to my routine of pretending to study each yum cha trolley knowing full well what I already want, maybe I will order this overlooked treat. I bite into my third and final pie and type 'gai pie' on Instagram. I find a recipe.
Photographs by Frank Choo @gentlemans_cooking
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Gai pie - Hong Kong chicken pies
Recipe by Frank Choo
For pie crust
- 200 g unsalted butter, sliced
- 1 egg for brushing
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tbsp water
- 320 g all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp milk powder
- 50 g sugar
- 4 g salt
- 1 egg
- 30 ml fresh milk
For creamy mushroom chicken filling
- Half an onion, diced
- 200 g chicken thigh, chopped
- 50 g ham or bacon, sliced
- 85 g button mushroom, diced
- 1 tsp Chinese wine
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- ¼ tsp sesame oil
- ¼ tsp white pepper
(D) Cream Sauce
- 80 ml fresh milk/ evaporated milk
- 15 g unsalted butter
- 100 ml chicken stock
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp white pepper
- ¼ tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- Chicken pie mould 12 x 2.5”
- Cling wrap
- Rolling pin
Pie crust (can use a food processor)
1. Sieve (A) and mix well in a bowl.
2. Take cold butter from the fridge and add into the bowl.
3. Rub-in method: Use your fingertips and rub the (A) flour/powder mixture with butter until it becomes crumbs texture. You can save time by using a food processor and give it a few pulses.
4. Mix (B) well and add into the crumb mixture. Knead or fold lightly into a dough.
5. Cover with a cling wrap and put into the fridge to chill for 1 hour.
Creamy mushroom chicken
1. Add (C) into a bowl of diced chicken and marinate for 1 hour.
2. In a saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. If you are using bacon, no oil is needed. On medium heat, you can fry the bacon first to get the oil out and then you fry the onion and mushroom. When the aroma is out after a few minutes, add the marinated diced chicken.
3. When the chicken is half-cooked, slowly add mixture (D). Turn to low heat and simmer to thick cream texture. Once done, put one side to cool it down.
1. Weigh the pie dough and roll into a ball. One pie requires two portions; 28g for the pie base, 23g for the pie surface. It should be enough to make 12 sets. Every time you finish a dough, cover with a cling wrap or moist towel to prevent dough from drying.
2. Put the pie ball into the mould. Press down the centre of the dough lightly with 2 thumbs. As you swirl the mould, slowly press the dough from the centre and as you swirl, slowly press outwards and upwards until the dough is evenly spread out and exceed the tip of the mould by a bit.
3. Use a fork and poke some holes at the base of the dough.
4. Fill up the mould with creamy mushroom chicken.
5. For the pie top, lay a piece of cling wrap on a table. Put the pie surface ball and lay it over with a cling wrap. Press it down lightly with your palm. Use a rolling pin and roll into a circle shape slightly bigger than the mould top.
6. Lay the pie surface dough over the mould with the cling wrap. Peel off the cling wrap and seal the pie by pinching around the tip of the mould.
7. Using a knife, draw 5-6 lines on the surface to form a criss-cross pattern.
1. Preheat oven to 180-200°C for 5 mins.
2. Brush the surface of pie with egg and send it into the middle tray for 10 mins.
3. Take out, brush the surface of pie with honey water and send it back for another 5-10 mins.