How China made bagels 400 years ago

Jun 29, 2020

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.”

Guangbing strung together on a rod.
Guangbing strung together on a rod. / Photo: Patrick Wong

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.”

Zhao Ruxiang, guangbing maker

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.”

Zhao Ruxiang (right) hands a string of guangbing to a customer.
Zhao Ruxiang (right) hands a string of guangbing to a customer. / Photo: Patrick Wong

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.

(Read more: Why are century eggs black? The science behind their color)

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.

Zhao Ruxiang punches a hole in the guangbing dough. The hole allows the bread to expand during the baking process.
Zhao Ruxiang punches a hole in the guangbing dough. The hole allows the bread to expand during the baking process. / Photo: Patrick Wong

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.”

Zhao Ruxiang places a batch of guangbing in the oven.
Zhao Ruxiang places a batch of guangbing in the oven. / Photo: Patrick Wong

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.”

(Read more: Why a Hong Kong cake shop insists on making Chinese pastries the same way for over 30 years)

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.”

Chef's PlateStreet food

Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Patrick Wong

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche

Animation: Ray Ngan