Tasting the rewards of colonialism

BY ALEX SUNDSTROM

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The conventional wisdom is that British occupation of China in places like Hong Kong was a win for the Brits: they got delicious tea, sweet, relaxing opium and invaluable knowledge of seafood cookery. But the Chinese may ultimately have the last laugh; while you don’t see too many cool opium-influenced products these days, Hong Kong interpretations of Western rolls have led to awesome innovations in cheap postprandial delight available in Boston’s Chinatown.

Desserts are not generally the main strength of Asian food – the French have spent a lot more time retooling pastries, and if there were good patisseries in Boston I wouldn’t bother with the Chinese desserts much. But aside from ice cream it’s hard to find desserts in the area that retain some semblance of flavor or traditional ingredients. A Dunkin Donut, for example, is a big, cakey piece of flavorless shit.

The various Chinatown bakeries stock a broad range of Eastern renditions of Western cakes and more traditional items. The best baked goods, in no small part because they are usually served hot from a warm stainless steel tray, are the coconut buns (“gai mei bao”) and pineapple buns (“ba la bao” without filling, “ba la bao yao ham” with filling). The pineapple buns – so named because of the texture of their flaky crust that tops a warm roll – are probably best at Mix Bakery on Beech St, where the custard filling is the consistency of a cream donut filling, but less sweet and with a richer flavor from the eggs used. The Kam Lung Bakery on Harrison Avenue next to the Hong Kong Eatery has pineapple buns that are slightly larger and have a denser, tarter custard filling.

The coconut buns at Kam Lung, while filled with a delicious, oily coconut paste, have too strong a peanut flavor. Eldo Cake House on Harrison Ave serves perfect ones, with the oil bringing out the flavor of the coconut. Of the bakeries mentioned, Eldo is by far the most Westerner-friendly if you want to actually eat there – it’s well-lit, takes credit cards, has the comforting hue of flourescent lights, etc. One end of Mix Bakery opens onto a parking garage, and the seats are filled with elderly Chinese men reading newspapers and drinking coffee, rather than confection-munchers. Given the potential of these $.50-.80 pastries to be purchased en masse, frozen and eaten for breakfast every morning, however, the difference is not that great.

If you prefer eating more conventional items, all these bakeries do good approximations of American desserts as well. Eldo is a bit shaky on this front, although the wide range of drinks – like cold tea and milk with tapioca “pearls” (“tsun gee lai cha,” $2.50) helps it compensate for this. Eldo’s $.80 walnut rolls – a spiral of light cake with layers of frosting and interspersed walnuts – are good if a touch bitter, but other items like the cheesecake are just too bland.

This tendency to undersweeten normally helps Chinese baked goods – you can taste the range of a pastry’s flavors much better when less sugar is used than in normal American recipes. Mix Bakery’s coffee cake is pure excellence – the frosting is very creamy rather than cloying, and actually has discernable coffee flavor.

Of course, if you’ve gone all the way to Chinatown, you might as well try something a bit more exotic. The “mixed nut cookies” at Mix Bakery are stuffed with both beef and ginger, a combination that is much better than it sounds. Mix also has dense, hockey-puck like moon cakes filled with sweet red bean paste – the leaders of the rebellion establishing the Ming Dynasty coordinated battle plans by printing them on the cakes, but they are also useful for eating if you’re feeling hungry or adventuresome.

Those readers who want to experience Asian pastry but are too lazy to trek to Chinatown can shuffle over to the Porter Exchange and the Japonais Bakery, where you can try stuff like donuts filled with cream and a sweet adzuki bean paste. These desserts are too sweet to offer much contrast from your normal Dunkin Donuts/Hark fare, however, so a trip to Downtown Crossing is necessary to experience the full rewards of colonialism.

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