One of the most quintessential “Hong Kong” snacks around is the humble pineapple bun – or bo lo bao (菠蘿包) in Cantonese. It’s a soft, pillowy bun topped with a sweet, crunchy golden crust, the criss-cross patterning of which gives the bun its somewhat confusing name. For newbies who haven’t yet had the pleasure of eating a pineapple bun – no, it doesn’t taste like pineapple.
And don’t even get us started on their provenance, because nobody can agree on any one story.
The pineapple bun is so ubiquitous – and its production so labour-intensive – that its baking process even made the 480-item-long list of Hong Kong’s “intangible cultural heritage” in 2014. It goes without saying that such a popular and timeless snack in a food-obsessed city like Hong Kong has undergone too many twists, takes and re-imaginings to count… but here’s just eight of the different ways you can eat bo lo bao:
The classic: Pineapple bun
If you’re looking for a classic, no-frills, damn fine pineapple bun, you can’t go wrong with your local cha chaan teng. For us, that’s Kam Fung, an old school café dating back to 1956 and one of Hong Kong’s most famous cha chaan tengs. Their pineapple buns (HKD5) are unquestionably legit, although they’re slightly overshadowed by Kam Fung’s reputation for having the best egg tarts in the city (which they totally, totally do).
Where to get it: G/F, Spring Garden Mansion, 41 Spring Garden Lane, Wan Chai (Google Maps)
“Is butter a carb?”: Buttered pineapple bun
Despite the fact that the pastry isn’t exactly light on the calories in its OG form, one of the most popular forms of the pineapple bun is a “bo lo yau”, or “pineapple butter”, which is literally just a bun with a fat slab of butter sandwiched inside.
Ah yes, the bun that launched a thousand tummy rumbles.
Health-conscious Coconauts may wince at such an artery-clogging atrocity, but we (and generations of Hongkongers) can attest to its straight up deliciousness. When done just right, it’s a perfect mix of warm, fluffy bread, crumbly crust and sheer, unadulterated bliss – a.k.a. salted butter.
A bo lo yau at the venerable Kam Wah Café will set you back a grand total of HKD10, although you’ll probably want to spring for a cup of milk tea – you know, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Where to get it: G/F, 47 Bute Street, Prince Edward, Kowloon (Google Maps)
PB&J 2.0: Peanut butter and plum jam filled pineapple buns
One peanut butter pineapple bun (L) and one plum jam pineapple bun (R)
Tucked away in Kowloon City is Hoover Cake Shop, which is so-named because you’ll probably want to hoover up everything in sight there. Just kidding, it’s based on the pronunciation of its Cantonese name (豪華餅店), which literally means “luxury cake shop”. The bakery offers all manner of interesting variants of pineapple bun, with fillings like plum jam, peanut butter, desiccated coconut, and red bean, each for an eyewatering HKD7. We got the first two and had ourselves a little HK-style PB&J, because why not? It was delicious, obviously.
Where to get it: G/F, 136 Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City (Google Maps)
Omnomnomivore: Char siu pineapple buns
Move over cronuts, char siu bo lo baos are the original hybrid pastry. These bite-sized buns combine the golden pastry of pineapple buns with juicy char siu (which is an English term now, according to the OED!), because if we’ve learned anything on this pineapple journey so far, it’s that smooshing two tasty things together almost always ends well. Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? GOOD.
Quite a few different dim sum establishments offer these, but you can always depend on good ol’ Maxim’s Palace as a surefire, kitschy-as-hell option.
Where to get it: Maxim’s Palace, 2/F, Low Block, City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central (Google Maps)
Same same but different: Cinnamon buttered pineapple bun and pineapple bun “hamburger”
Cinnamon buttered pineapple bun
For a modern update on the bo lo yau, check out Kasa, which serves its buttered pineapple bun with a cinnamon butter (HKD38 for a tea set). It’s subtler in flavour than the cha chaan teng version, but no less delightful to eat.
Also on the menu is the “Kasa hamburger” (HKD48 for a tea set), which consists of Japanese char siu, pickled onion, ginger mayonnaise, and an egg, sunny-side-up, inside a halved and toasted pineapple bun. Frankly, this may sound like something of a monstrosity on paper (or screen), but we were won over. It’s meaty, sweet, and a little messy to eat – kind of like a regular burger.
Where to get it: Shop 103, 1/F, Shui On Centre, 6-8 Harbour Road, Wan Chai (Google Maps)
Even more butter, with a side of Kongish: Pineapple bun croissant
While non-Cantonese speakers may balk at any foodstuffs with the words “ball” and “cow” in their name, Urban Bakery Works’ Ball Law Cowssant (HKD18) is really just a Kongish pun which plays on the pronunciation of bo lo (or “baaaw laaaaw” to be precise) and the Canto name for croissant – “cow horn bread” – which is derived from the pastry’s curved shape.
The flaky croissant pastry is topped with pineapple bun crust, and stuffed with an enormous stick of French butter.
By all accounts, it’s a pretty great (and super-effin’-indulgent) adaptation of the bo lo yau. We wouldn’t know, because they’re always fresh out of the suckers every time we’ve been. Writers: we’re just like you, but probably hungrier.
Where to get it: All Urban Bakery Works locations
Got a tip? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org