Food

The origins of Hong Kong’s iconic pineapple bun

May 31, 2019

Pineapple buns are a staple in Chinese bakeries around the world.

Despite the name, the bun contains no pineapple. Rather, its crunchy, golden-brown top is thought to resemble the look and texture of a pineapple’s epicarp.

Pineapple buns are so called because of the crusty top that resembles a pineapple’s epicarp.
Pineapple buns are so called because of the crusty top that resembles a pineapple’s epicarp. / Photo: South China Morning Post

Firm on the outside with a sweet, crumbly crust, and soft on the inside, it is a messy but delightful eat.

Many Hong Kong cafes offer a buttered variant with a slab of butter inside, though the bun can also be filled with shredded coconut, custard cream, red bean paste, and even scrambled eggs.

A pineapple bun with a slab of butter inside.
A pineapple bun with a slab of butter inside. / Photo: South China Morning Post

The pastry has become so iconic that in 2014, the Hong Kong government listed the process for making it as an “intangible cultural heritage.”

(Read more: 8 quintessential Chinese desserts, illustrated)

Tai Tung Bakery in the suburb of Yuen Long is famous for being one of the oldest family-run bakeries in Hong Kong, churning out about 1,000 pineapple buns daily since 1943.

A pastry chef at Tai Tung Bakery places the crust on a pineapple bun.
A pastry chef at Tai Tung Bakery places the crust on a pineapple bun. / Photo: South China Morning Post

While the bread of the bun is now machine-made, the crust is still meticulously done by hand. There are just four basic ingredients—flour, eggs, oil, and sugar—but it takes the bakery 24 hours to come up with a batch of their signature offering.

“The trick to making a crispy crust but soft bun is the right proportion and quality of ingredients.”

Tse Ching-yuen, owner of Tai Tung

“The trick to making a crispy crust but soft bun is the right proportion and quality of ingredients,” says Tse Ching-yuen, the 87-year-old owner of Tai Tung.

Ip Kwok-chiu, a pastry chef at Tai Tung Bakery, brushes egg yolk on pineapple buns. The egg adds richness to the crust, says bakery owner Tse Ching-yuen.
Ip Kwok-chiu, a pastry chef at Tai Tung Bakery, brushes egg yolk on pineapple buns. The egg adds richness to the crust, says bakery owner Tse Ching-yuen. / Photo: South China Morning Post

Tse was 11 when his father opened Tai Tung. He remembers helping out his father at the shop.

“Before we started producing pineapple buns in Hong Kong in the 1940s, there was something similar in Japan,” Tse says. “But its ultimate origin is unknown.”

Tse surmises that they may have made their way to Hong Kong via Shanghai.

Tse Ching-yuen, left, the owner of Tai Tung Bakery, inspects a batch of pineapple buns. Tse has been working at the bakery since he was 11.
Tse Ching-yuen, left, the owner of Tai Tung Bakery, inspects a batch of pineapple buns. Tse has been working at the bakery since he was 11. / Photo: South China Morning Post

Regardless of how they ended up in the city, pineapple buns are now an inextricable part of Hong Kong’s identity. Walk into any bakery in the city, and you’ll likely find pineapple buns on sale.

(Read more: The man who left a cushy finance job to run his family’s bakery in Hong Kong)

They’ve become so popular that at the end of 2018, the city’s Consumer Council warned of the health risks associated with it.

The results from a study conducted by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council in 2018 show the sodium and fat content of various pastries popular in the city.
The results from a study conducted by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council in 2018 show the sodium and fat content of various pastries popular in the city. / Photo: South China Morning Post

A report found pineapple buns to be high in fat, particularly trans fat, considered by health experts as the most unhealthy kind.

An average pineapple bun contains 13 grams of fat and 0.07 grams of trans fat per 100 grams.

(Read more: An illustrated guide to all the Chinese buns)

To put this in perspective, the World Health Organization recommends no more than 66 grams of total fat and 2.2 grams of trans fat a day for a 2,000-calorie diet, and even less for those watching their weight.

Still, that hasn’t stopped people from eating the beloved snack.

There’s even an animated film in Hong Kong called McDull, Prince de la Bun about an anthropomorphic pig who wears a pineapple bun as a hat.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

Hong KongDim sumDesserts

Credit

Producer: Kari Lindberg

Videographers: Nicholas Ko and Hanley Chu

Editor: Hanley Chu

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Joel Roche

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