At East Asian Bakeries, You'll Find Home in the Pastry Case
One green tea swiss roll, please
From the outside, Paris Baguette looks like just another trendy, Parisian-inspired café, but to East Asian immigrants and children of the diaspora, it’s obvious that Paris Baguette has as much in common with “authentic” France as a souvenir statue of the Eiffel Tower. There are hints among the baguettes and macarons: Curry sausage rolls braided into savory sticks; neon-yellow, glistening tarts; green tea Swiss rolls sharing fridge space with “normal” flavors like chocolate and vanilla.
The employees are a diverse bunch, but the patrons are decidedly not—the mirrored, well-lit space is populated almost entirely by middle-aged East Asian people who instinctively grab trays, wax paper, and little tongs by the entrance of the Los Angeles Koreatown café. This is partly to do with where this particular store is located—Los Angeles’ Koreatown—but also because Paris Baguette is, at its heart, an East Asian bakery. The Korean chain, and competitors/comrades like Caffebene and 85 Degrees, are part of a rich community of East Asian bakeries that have served as repositories of history, community, and, of course, delicious food to a populace that eats them up.
East Asian bakeries are doubly IDed as Asian: Firstly, for the kind of foods they serve, and secondly, for their locations, oftentimes purposely in the heart of ethnic enclaves—the Chinatowns, Japantowns, and Koreatowns of the world. While they serve these centers’ large immigrant populations, they also feed the diaspora at large, imparting a sense of cultural homecoming.
When I think about Chinese breakfasts, I usually first think of chicken stock-flavored porridge with pickles and preserved egg, red bean- and pork-filled moon cakes, fried dough with soy sauce-laced eggs. But Chinese cakes and buns were also a staple in my household. East Asian breakfast bakeries have long perfected sweet things, though admittedly not at the saccharine saturation that Western bakeries and patisseries have made their norm. Chinese pastries, as well as more traditional dessert snacks like tang yuan, Japanese wagashi, and Korean dduk, all use fruit for subtly sweet flavoring, and glutinous rice adds a decidedly Asian, squishy dimension to them.
Western and Eastern bakeries alike delight in mixing slightly sweet dough with savory ingredients, but the latter’s offerings are a far cry from smoked salmon bagels and English muffin sandwiches. Hot dogs are a beloved ingredient and are matched with every possible kind of topping and preparation; though ham and egg are still popular, so is rou song, which I’ve seen (pretty accurately) translated as “pork floss.” Curry, whether baked into triangle puffs or as a condiment, infuses many a bakery pastry, alongside more traditional regional flavors like taro. (Though one of the most popular Asian bakery goods, pineapple buns, borrows none of the spiky fruit’s flavor.) While some foods, like cakes, are kept in refrigerated cases, others are simply laid out in large racks for customers to pluck themselves, with single-meal-serving buns oftentimes starting at $1.50. These bakeries are usually inconspicuous, embedded in strip malls or shopping complexes; scattered English signage gives way to native scripts.
While I’ve been cavalierly referring to East Asian bakeries as, well, East Asian bakeries, this is only true in the West; in Asia, “Asian bakeries” are actually called Western bakeries, referring to their history as an adaptation of Western colonization. And while they certainly serve as a delicious tether for visitors and immigrants on either side of the Pacific, their greatest treat may be the sense of community they foster for immigrant communities outside of their origin nations.
For first-generation immigrants and their children, East Asian bakeries are spaces that provide both financial and community support. Foodstuffs tend to be on the cheaper side, and the flavor profiles of the food served are familiar. (Before matcha went mainstream, East Asian bakeries were some of the only places with its distinct flavor on the menu.) There’s also an ease in going into a space where your face and dialect are normalized, especially if outside the bakery doors, you’re othered based on your race, ethnic background, or some other point of marginalization. People go to East Asian bakeries to socialize; to grab a familiar bite while studying or working; to mark and celebrate important moments, apart from and in spite of a mainstream food culture that has only recently stopped mocking “exotic” foods.
Of course, the role of East Asian bakeries has evolved concurrently with the Asian/Asian-American diaspora. Whereas before, mom-and-pop shops served specific communities, newer chains like Paris Baguette and Caffebene also cater to non-East Asian populations. Though plenty of smaller places exist, these newer bakeries prioritize English signage and are void of, say, the uncovered racks and racks of freshly-baked pastries that mark a bakery’s humbler origins. But trying to determine the “authenticity” of these chains is a failed enterprise. After all, authenticity is often the concern of people outside of the cultures they’re attempting to authenticate, and more importantly, none of that matters to a member of the East Asian diaspora when you bite into a freshly baked, warmth-radiating red-bean bun.
That warmth is everything to the immigrant missing their original community, to the East Asian-American kid growing up among mostly white peers, to anyone who lives in the liminal space between cultures and generations. Everyone has the thing that brings them back, and for some of us, it’s nothing more, nothing less, than a curry puff, or a scallion-and-hot-dog bun, or a loaf of milk bread—something that takes us home.