a doughnut by another name

hong kong’s version of the ever-popular doughnut, called sa yung, is as elusive as it is enjoyable, found only at a handful of traditional bakeries and coffee shops. luckily for those of us in the klang valley, the delightful pastry is now available at a cafe in kota damansara.

there’s the shopping, the star spotting, the ding ding (trams) rides and of course, the food. you just can’t experience hong kong without at least developing a crush for its culinary charms, in particular the cantonese fare that’s served at all levels of eateries – from kerbside dai pai tong and neighbourhood char chan teng to michelin-starred fine dining restaurants.  then there are the food carts and kiosks that entice you with nibbles like gai dan zai (egg waffles), curry fishballs and if you can stomach it, stinky fermented tofu.

that’s just skimming the surface of a sprawling buffet that i would love to be able to say i have completely ‘been there, eaten that’ and so on each trip to the fast-paced city, i make it a point to sink my teeth into something new. “you have to try sa yung,” a friend who visits hong kong every year and knows her way around its food, told me in earnest. she described it as a crispy, fried puff that’s rolled in sugar and has an airy, spongey centre. “like a doughnut,” she surmised.

the sa yung is indeed known as the hong kong-style doughnut and is believed to have originated from guangdong, where it’s a popular street snack. although, it more closely resembles a beignet in that it’s a deep-fried choux pastry but in terms of appearance, the sa yung can pass for a profiterole.

i just knew that i had to hunt it down and i do mean hunt as the sa yung, while well-loved, is not easily available. my best bet, i was advised, was tai cheong bakery, where former governor chris patten famously got his regular fix of egg tarts. ‘fat patten’s egg tarts’ have since become the old-school patisserie chain’s top seller but prior to that, their sa yung were what customers lined up for.

a crispy, fried puff that’s rolled in sugar and has an airy, spongey centre

i headed to the original outlet on lyndhurst terrace in central, which had been given a facelift and was clad in a soft turquoise facade with gold letterings that’s rather laduree-like. the sa yung, advertised as ‘sugar puffs’, sat in a plastic bread container on the counter. each piece is about the size of a tennis ball and coated in sugar. i bit into the golden ball and the first thing i noticed was how non-greasy it was, despite having been deep fried. the crispy shell gave way to a moist bread-like centre that looked like a thin mesh of fine dough strands. a comforting aroma of eggs wafted from it.

this was indeed comfort food and now i understood why my friend was constantly raving about it. but was this the best sa yung hong kong had to offer? my search then took me to cafe pak lee since 1964, a bing sutt (traditional coffee house) that’s an institution in sai wan ho and just last year, opened a second outlet in sheung wan. at the latter, posters of classic hong kong movies hang on the walls while a caricature of the late anita mui deck a colourful mural – all a nod to the fact that the original pak lee was located next to a cinema. both outlets have the same menu, with sa yung listed under ‘snacks from the 50s’ as egg pearls. there’s nothing pearl-like about them though: bigger than tai cheong’s version, they’re actually quite clunky in shape and size. the pastry was rather dense and dry, with little of the airiness that i had come to expect of sa yung.

i was left wanting for more but where else could i go? the answer, it turned out, was to get out of the city and head to the fishing village of tai o, on the outlying island of lantau. in between the stilt homes, dried seafood shops and non-descript low buildings housing restaurants that flank narrow, car-free roads i found the eponymous tai o bakery. unfortunately i had arrived on a thursday and the bakery, like many of the village’s small family-run establishments, was closed. on weekdays, tai o is a cowboy town with nary a tourist in sight and locals go about their idyllic lives at an unhurried pace. understandably, most establishments rest on weekdays to conserve their energies and resources to handle the incessant weekend crowds.

i tried my luck again on saturday morning. the bakery was just opening its doors when i got there, but there was no sa yung in sight. instead, an empty tray and posters advertising ‘tai o donut’ sat on a foldable table placed outside. “the sa yung is being fried right now,” the lady setting up the table told me, “come back around noon.”

i did, and was duly rewarded with parcels of wok-fresh beauties that were a pure joy to bite into: the well-sugared skin crumbled into a pale yellow centre that melted in the mouth. the contrasting textures – a crisp shell and pillow-soft insides – complemented each other well. i didn’t stop at one. i believed i’d found it right: hong kong’s best sa yung, right there. what a treat but alas, i would have to hop on a flight whenever i wanted to satisfy my sa yung cravings.

fortunately i wasn’t the only person to rue that fact. fashion stylist cum cafe owner grace kue has been an ardent sa yung aficionado since she had her first taste at tai cheong bakery when she was 12. subsequent visits to hong kong only made her love for the pastry grow. sa yung is also available at her hometown of sandakan in sabah, which is known as little hong kong and where influences from the chinese city can be gleaned from its food. when grace opened her amaze k cafe earlier this year, naturally she wanted to include sa yung on the menu and introduce it to food enthusiasts in the klang valley.

the well-sugared skin crumbled into a pale yellow centre that melted in the mouth

her kitchen crew, however, had never been to hong kong or tasted the doughnuts before. guided by grace’s description, her team of young chefs experimented and adapted a recipe for cream puffs to great effect. “they got it right at first try,” said grace proudly.

is it really that easy, i queried. her team agreed to show me the steps. i watched as chef alan bong prepared the batter and mixed it thoroughly, alternating between using his hands and a whisk. his fellow chefs, wang kang jun and mike wong, who also had a hand in developing the recipe, helped to check on the progress. “the recipe is simple,” juntold me, “but it’s not easy to get the texture right.” the batter must be beaten to a silky, starchy consistency and that required quite a bit of arm strength.

once done, alan scooped small portions into a wok of hot oil, working quickly and then constantly tossing the sa yung to make sure they all browned evenly. as the pastry puffed up, they began to resemble oversized fried cempedak  (jackfruit) or even durians. once pong was happy that they were cooked through and the colour was a lovely golden yellow, the sa yung were lifted from the wok and just before serving, dusted with fine sugar.

while they were smaller than the ones i had tried, amaze k’s sa yung certainly looked the part but did they taste the part? the proof, in this case, was in the pastry.  i bit in, a little hesitantly in case it all ended in disappointment, and was instantly assured. it may not have the wow factor of tai o’s offering but it was a proper sa yung that ticked all the right boxes, comparable to tai cheung’s version. to make my snacking experience even more authentic, i washed it down with the creamy, aromatic hong kong-style amaze k milk tea. a taste of hong kong that comforted the tummy and excited the palate, and i didn’t have to leave malaysia to enjoy it.

 

tai cheong bakery 35 lyndhurst terrace, central, hong kong tel +852 8300 8301 opens 7.30am-9pm, monday-saturday; 8.30am-9pm, sunday and public holidays price of sa yung hkd6 a piece www.taicheongbakery.com/tc/home/index.html

cafe pak lee since 1964 ug/f the pemberton, 22-26 bonham strand, sheung wan, hong kong opens 7am-10pm daily price of sa yung hkd8 a piece www.facebook.com/pakleecafesince1964

tai o bakery 66 kat hing street, tai o, lantau island, hong kong tel +852 2985 8621 opens 11am-6pm most days, closes on irregular tuesdays and thursdays; best to call ahead and check vprice of sa yung hkd7 a piece www.facebook.com/taiobakery

amaze k cafe 23 jalan pju3/34, dataran sunway, petaling jaya, selangor tel +03 7733 7657 opens 7.30am-6pm, monday-saturday price of sa yung rm12 for 6 pieces; must be pre-ordered at least one day in advance www.facebook.com/amaze.k.cafe

 

this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 22 june 2014