‘Our love language is through food’: Filipino bakers in Hong Kong cook up a taste of home to satisfy their cravings
- Missing the flavours of home, some Filipinos in Hong Kong are creating their own bakery brands to bring familiar comforts to the community
- Bakeries like Purple Flour, run by a former lawyer in the Philippines, are selling popular items like ube cheese pandesal and ube chiffon cakes
A sense of longing would wash over Esther Claudine Lim Singzon, stuck in Hong Kong during the coronaviruas pandemic, every time she saw ube cheese pandesal on her Instagram feed.
Pandesal, or “salt bread” rolls, are staples in a Filipino family’s almusal (breakfast) or merienda (snack time). Contrary to its name, the soft, fluffy breads are mildly sweet with a crisp exterior. They are available in panaderias, or local bakeries, across The Philippines.
Ube, a purple yam grown in the Philippines, has been integral to the nation’s food culture for over 400 years. Ube halaya jam adds a nutty, vanilla flavour to almost any dessert. To make it, purple yams are boiled, mashed and stirred with sugar, butter and coconut milk.
“I’m obsessed with ube,” says Singzon, whose long search for it in Hong Kong has almost always left her disappointed. The flavour of what jams she could find in World-Wide House – the city’s hub for Filipino products, in Central on Hong Kong Island – was “never right”.
Finally, she decided to make her own ube halaya concoction.
The 38-year-old, who used to be a lawyer in the Philippines, has been passionate about baking since she was a child. While studying at Ateneo de Manila University’s law school, she would even sell baked goods to make some money.
In August 2020, with no end in sight to the pandemic and longing for a taste of home, Singzon opened Purple Flour Hong Kong – an online bakery where the flagship product was the ube cheese pandesal.
“As someone who couldn’t go back to the Philippines, I tried to recreate the experience in Hong Kong,” she says.
Singzon spent the first few months operating the business from home, then from rented kitchen spaces when demand grew. Along the way, she became friends with Veronica Leung, a Hong Kong-Canadian chef with nearly seven years of culinary experience. Leung is now the head baker at Purple Flour’s licensed kitchen in Kwun Tong in Kowloon.
Filipinos were running cottage industry bakeries in Hong Kong long before Covid-19, however. Some do not have an online presence, and orders are mostly done through word-of-mouth referrals – an established practice in the Philippines.
“It’s like, everyone starts ordering from this one auntie who’s known for a particular dish,” says Catherine Feliciano-Chon, the Filipino-American founder of communications agency CatchOn in Hong Kong. “This has been going on for as long as I can remember.”
When Filipinos immigrated into the city, they brought that tradition with them, she says.
Food – especially desserts – is central to Filipino culture. The Philippine bakery and cereals market in 2021 was valued at US$2.04 billion, according to a report published by data analytics and consulting company Global Data in May 2022.
Angela Santos, 34, co-founder of Instagram bakery Bread Winner Craft Bakery, says her Filipino customers tend to order enough for the whole family – plus extra for friends.
“Our food culture is about people,” says Santos. “We like to share what we have so people know more about our food.”
“I think the way to explain this is that it’s influenced by our Malay roots. The sense of taking care of each other, the village thinking and the collective good,” adds Feliciano-Chon. “It’s how we function as a community.
“That’s the heart of how Filipinos are, and that’s the thing I love the most about our culture.”
Similarly, Singzon believes that Filipinos are “very generous” – but has seen Purple Flour’s clientele expand to include Chinese Hongkongers too.
“[Leung’s] insight has helped enrich the products we offer,” she says. “Everything that we make nods to my Filipino roots, but it has transformed into something that is universally accepted.”
Purple Flour’s desserts are now a fusion of Filipino and Western tastes. For instance, the ube shortcake has layers of airy vanilla chiffon cake, fresh ube halaya, ube cream cheese and Chantilly cream frosting.
The bakery’s hero product – the ube loaf cake – is topped with a pistachio cream cheese frosting. The ube pandesal has a wide range of fillings, from the signature purple yam paste and cheese to a 55 per cent plain chocolate.
“My being Filipino introduces people to a variety of new and interesting flavours that they didn’t think they would like,” says Singzon.
Currently, the shop delivers orders through courier service provider Lalamove and Calioo, an online marketplace which aims to support home-grown chefs in Hong Kong. It also supplies desserts to a cafe in Kwun Tong.
While Bread Winner’s Santos dreams of one day having her own dining venue, her full-time job means that might be difficult to achieve.
Feliciano-Chon points out that operating home bakeries in Hong Kong is a “much bigger risk” than it is in the Philippines. Hong Kong has more stringent rules regarding culinary businesses.
“It’s quite heartwarming that this underground network even exists here,” she says. “So, I hope these businesses have a shot in going more mainstream.
“Food is a bridge, so it can hopefully be something that brings people together.”