Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pau Buns

The Pau is an interesting variation on the bun theme. It is singular that it uses both yeast and baking powder; people are never sure whether to classify it as a bread or a cake. Then, it is almost invariably steamed and not baked. This imparts to it its white colour as well as its distinctive flavour.

The origins of the Pau bun are said to lie in China. At least, that's what Wikipedia claims. Be that as it may, the Pau has spread all over south-east Asia now. And remarkably, it has become ubiquitous to the cuisine of all the regions it has touched. As a self-contained breakfast, a side-dish for lunch or dinner, or a random snack, its popularity remains unrivalled all over south-east Asia.

Singapore is no exception. You get Paus most wherever you get food. You name it - shopping malls, hawker centres, departmental stores, petrol pumps, even the NUS Bukit Timah canteen (the Kopi Tiam counter) for good measure. Indeed, apart from sausages and french fries sold at the 'Western' counter, they are virtually the only quick-bites one can get there. And very convenient too - if you have a class to catch in ten minutes, a couple of Paus and a coffee does you nicely. You can even carry the stuff into class and eat there. Most professors don't seem to mind.

In any case, the minimal waiting time involved is certainly a relieving factor. Not only are they pre-cooked, usually you needn't even wait for the shopkeeper to serve you. They are stored in a hot-case in the front of the shop. All you need to do is make your choices, then open the case and pick up your selections with a pair of tongs.

The cases are quite interesting in themselves. They are roughly cubical in shape, with a large glass door hinged at the side. When you open it you see several shelves that slant downwards away from the opening. The buns are slid into the opening arranged in neat orderly rows, each row dedicated to a single variety. Little stickers on the door glass indicate the varieties. For added precaution in case of a mix-up, they are coded with little dots of food colouring on top.

I just love the taste of Pau. The pristine whiteness of its colour reflects somewhere in its taste too. Moist, faintly sweetish, understated, almost (but only almost) bland. Somewhat like Idli but more light and airy, thanks to the baking powder and yeast. Forms a wonderful base for the more strongly flavoured fillings.

The varieties of Pau available in Singapore serves as an illustration of how cultural factors influence food. I don't suppose the basic preparation methods vary from those followed in China. But the fillings are strongly reflective of local tastes and norms. In deference to the significantly Muslim population (even many of its purveyors are ethnic Malays), chicken (or 'ayam') comprises the most popular filling. The famed Char Siew Pau and other pork variants are rarities.

Honey chicken Pau is a popular variant, but I'm not too fond of it. The ones I tried were a bit too sweet. Doesn't go too well for breakfast, especially not with very strong black coffee. Teriyaki chicken Pau is a far better alternative. My favourite is the black-pepper chicken variant. It's mildly spiced, dusted over with black pepper, and has a creamy texture to it.

Veggie variants include those with lotus-stem and yam fillings. The Curry Pau is another cross-cultural product, this time bearing strong Indian influences. Its stuffing is what we'd call a standard Alu ki Sabzi, lots of potato spiked with Garam Masala and red pepper powder. It makes for a surprisingly effective combination, and is one of the most popular varieties.


ys said...

am fond of the little pau too :)!

Pooja Sharma said...

surprised to find that there are paus in singapore, and that little detail about them having both yeast and baking powder.
and here I thought it was only maharashtrians who were crazy abt it! as far as popularity and easy availability of street food in mumbai is concerned, the vada pav wins hands down.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Pooja, I'm such a fool! Why didn't I link these Paus to the Pao one gets in Bombay? Did some quick research, opens an interesting line of thought. Many, many thanks for pointing this out! I'll do a write-up about this; have already done some research on it.

Pooja Sharma said...

anytime :-)