When Paul Eng of Fong On took over his family’s rice cake and tofu business in New York, there was one problem: he didn’t know the recipes. So he had to learn everything from scratch—and in the process rediscovered his family’s legacy.
For over 80 years, a small family-run shop in New York’s Chinatown gained a loyal following for its fresh handmade tofu and sweet spongy rice cakes.
So when Fong Inn Too closed in 2017 due to rising rents and falling demand, the family’s youngest son, Paul Eng, was determined to keep it going.
There was just one problem: he didn’t know the recipes.
None of them were written down, and the old shop had used makeshift measuring tools: recycled milk cans, plastic buckets, and ladles of all sizes.
“At the old store, they would say, ‘We use a cup of this,’” Eng recalls. “I’m like, ‘Well, what was the cup? Eight ounces?’ And they would say, ‘No, it’s a cup.’”
The cup, it turns out, was a coffee mug they had lying around on a kitchen shelf.
“They never had a measurement,” he says.
So Eng had to build the recipes from scratch, using bits of information he picked up from his father and old employees of the store.
“What I did was I took their basic recipe and then I compared it to YouTube videos of the process,” he says. “It’s still our recipe, but I needed the science that underpinned everything.”
Relearning an 80-year-old family recipe
Eng’s new store, Fong On, which he opened last year, is a continuation of a family business that’s been around for over 80 years.
His grandfather opened the business with some associates in 1933 selling soy and rice staples like tofu, soy milk, and rice noodles.
But their most popular item was rice cake, a sweet and spongy snack often eaten in southern China as a dessert or afternoon pick-me-up.
Known as baitanggao 白糖糕 in Mandarin and baak tong gou in Cantonese, it’s made from rice paste fermented with yeast and steamed. The result is an airy cake with a funky fragrance similar to that of a fine sake.
“I kind of describe it as kind of like a cross between bread and cake,” Eng says.
(Read more: The origins of Hong Kong’s iconic pineapple bun)
For decades, most of the customers were immigrants from China who grew up eating rice cakes. They were especially popular during holidays like Qingming, when families would visit the graves of deceased relatives and present the cakes as offerings.
Eng never saw himself taking over the family business.
Even though he grew up helping out at the store and in the kitchen, Eng never saw himself taking over the family business. While his four older brothers stayed in Chinatown to run the shop, he decided to pursue other interests.
In college, he studied architecture, and after graduating in 1989, he worked at a guitar shop, joined a band, worked at an art agency, and later moved to Moscow to pursue photography.
He returned to New York in 2013 after almost 10 years abroad. When Fong Inn Too closed in 2017, he saw an opportunity to reinvent it.
“In the past, my family might have wanted to do more things and get more customer base from other places” beyond Chinatown, Eng says. “Now, I think it’s more possible.”
Take the rice cakes, for example. Eng admits he still struggles to explain them to customers who haven’t tried them before.
“Rice cake is this thing that you can’t even describe to someone who is not Cantonese.”
He recalls one person asking if they were vegan and gluten-free. He didn’t know, so the customer asked what the rice cakes were made of. “Rice, and some leavening agent like baking soda or yeast,” he said.
“And they were like, ‘All right, then it is vegan, and it is gluten-free,’” he recalls.
Now, he makes sure to include the hashtags on his shop’s Instagram posts. Asterisks on his menu also indicate the cakes are gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
While the customers who buy rice cakes are still primarily from the neighborhood, his store’s other products—tofu pudding and soy milk—are better known to the outside world. He doesn’t have to sell them as hard.
“I'm actually using tofu pudding as the gateway now for the rice cake,” he says, “because rice cake is this thing that you can’t even describe to someone who is not Cantonese.”
Bringing the shop into the 21st century
Eng has also added a modern twist to the classic flavors. Traditional rice cakes were only made with white or brown sugar.
But Eng has expanded the repertoire by adding matcha powder and fresh ginger to the paste, and he’s already experimenting with other flavors.
“My brother’s been able to bring it up to the 21st century,” says David Eng, who worked in the family’s wholesale business for decades. “And made it geared towards the younger generation, the hipsters, and they like it.”
To that end, Paul Eng sees the store’s reinvention—and his place in it—as a natural succession of the family business.
“To me, the legacy is not the recipes,” he says. “My grandfather got into this business out of necessity. He had a family to feed in China. My father got into the business the same way. The same with my brothers, and the same with me.”
“It seemed like that was the actual legacy—have a good family business and have a family to support. And that’s how I came back into doing this.”