When a military general needed to feed his soldiers on the go, he came up with a portable pastry.
In China’s coastal Fujian Province, there is a traditional pastry that looks like a bagel and tastes like a bagel. But instead of being boiled, it’s baked.
Guangbing 光饼 is a staple of the region. In Chinese, its name means “shiny biscuit.”
Local lore says that a 16th-century military general came up with the bread shape because the bagels could easily be strung together and carried by soldiers, who were fighting off pirates at the time.
“It’s like an amulet. When you take it into war, you’ll win.”
Since then, they’ve become a staple of Fujian and a symbol of endurance. They’re a popular snack sold from roadside stalls in cities and on mountain trails.
“It’s like an amulet,” says Zhao Ruxiang, one of the last specialty guangbing makers in China. “When you take it into war, you’ll win.”
Every morning, Zhao wakes up at 3 to start making the guangbing.
He mixes flour, salt, and water to make the dough. A sprinkle of lye is added. It’s what gives the final product its brownish hue.
After that, he takes pieces of the dough and presses them into the shape of a bagel. This, his son says, is the hardest part.
“This little step actually takes eight months to learn,” says Zhao Hanzhan, who works alongside his father. “I thought mine were pretty good. But my dad said they weren’t good enough.”
Once the dough is pressed, Zhao punches a hole in the middle. This allows the bread to expand during the baking process.
The dough pieces are baked in a wood-fired oven, which can hold up to 100 guangbing at a time. Getting the bagels inside is a challenge in itself. The opening is less than an arm’s width wide, meaning bakers frequently burn themselves trying to get a batch in.
Zhao’s son shows us scars on his arm from where the oven’s edge grazed his skin. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” he says. “Just like stairs.”
It takes 15 minutes for them to cook. When they’re slightly brown, they’re taken out and ready to be sold.
“The economics of it isn’t good,” the younger Zhao admits. “One guangbing sells for 14 cents. If business is good, then it’s good. But if business is bad, we can barely afford enough food for ourselves.”
The Zhaos are some of the last guangbing makers in China, but they hope to continue passing on the tradition.
“My guangbing is not as good as my dad’s,” Zhao says. “It’s because he has a special understanding of flour and experience. He knows more than I do. He’s made tens of millions. I’ve only made hundreds of thousands.”
He adds: “I really want to preserve this craft. I want to pass this onto my children, just like how my dad passed it onto me.”