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SF Chronicle: Bay Area's thriving Asian bakery scene just got more vegan, from pineapple cake to calamansi pie

March 22, 2021

When Wendy Chan was pregnant with her first baby, she thought about her favorite childhood foods from Hong Kong-style bakeries: egg tarts, feathery green onion buns and pineapple buns with their cracked yellow cookie topping. The only problem was her vegan diet.


Wanting to raise her children with similar food memories, in 2017 the former Manresa Bread baker started tinkering with vegan versions of Chinese bakery classics. That recipe testing gradually led to a pop-up, Tai Zhan Bakery in Los Gatos, which has recently seen increased demand thanks to a partnership with popular Oakland vegan restaurant Lion Dance Cafe. Meanwhile, the pandemic spurred a home baker to launch Annie’s T Cakes, specializing in vegan and gluten free Taiwanese pineapple cakes. And the woman who has become locally famous as “the Pinay pie lady” will start selling vegan versions of her desserts at the end of March.


The rise in vegan Asian baked goods feels like a natural progression of two growing trends in the Bay Area: Asian-inspired bakeries and vegan eats. Popular San Francisco spot Breadbelly and newer pop-ups such as Bake Sum and Jina Bakes have been filling Instagram feeds with kaya buns, kalbijjim croissants and okonomiyaki danishes. All the while, vegan fast food is growing in the Bay Area, and businesses like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Miyoko’s Creamery are fueling Millennials and Gen-Zers who care about sustainability, said Annie Wang, who launched Annie’s T Cakes in January. But creating these vegan treats also feels deeply personal — a way for these bakers to connect to their identity. Biting into a nostalgic red bean bun “brings us back to that place like nothing else can,” Chan said.


Wang has been vegan for almost a decade, and over time she began to miss the sorts of meat-based dishes her family bonded over at dim sum restaurants. Unable to easily locate satisfactory vegan alternatives and suddenly having much more time on her hands during the pandemic, Wang zeroed in on the soft, crumbly, jam-filled pineapple cakes that she regularly snacked on as a kid.


While some traditional Asian desserts, such as mochi and sweet red bean soup, are naturally vegan, a lot of Asian bakeries line their cases with buns and other treats that are packed with eggs, milk powder, cream, butter and sometimes lard. Taiwanese pineapple cakes fall into the latter category. Passionate about the environment and sustainability, Wang wanted to not just veganize the pineapple cake but also tackle food waste by using okara, a byproduct of the tofu-making process that normally gets thrown out. Removing dairy from the cakes wasn’t too difficult, she said, thanks to the proliferation of quality vegan butters. But it took a lot of time to create the right texture because okara flour, which is also gluten-free, is much drier than wheat flour. The extra effort was worth it, though, to fuel her mission.


When 2021 hit, Melody Lorenzo, whose Filipino pie business Sweet Condesa has been skyrocketing since she started selling at the San Ramon Farmers’ Market last summer, decided it was time to make her desserts more inclusive of different diets. She tapped her friend Reina Montenegro, who ran popular vegan Filipino spot Nick’s on Grand in South San Francisco, for advice on vegan products and tried making her calamansi pie with coconut condensed milk and vegan butter in place of their dairy equivalents. The graham cracker crust retained its chewy texture, but the calamansi filling was way too sweet and overpowered by the coconut. She tried again, this time making a vegan calamansi curd with arrowroot powder and topping it with whipped coconut cream, similar to an icebox pie. It’ll be available for the first time at an Oakland pop-up on March 28. “It has that tanginess for sure, but it’s not as tangy as key lime. With the whipped coconut cream, it balances out,” Lorenzo said. “It’s just perfect.” Because Chan started baking vegan pastries before many quality products became widely available, she made them herself. She uses cashews and soy milk for her vegan butter, which is a crucial ingredient in many of her laminated pastries, such as black sesame kouign amann and the flaky crusts for her coconut custard filled eggless tarts.


The bakers all want to keep pushing the vegan Asian bakery scene forward. Lorenzo aims to make a vegan equivalent of all of her pies — her fudgy ube pie is next — and sees major potential in highlighting tropical fruits like mango and passion fruit. Wang is testing recipes to expand her menu and hopes to expand her footprint as well, offering more pickup locations around the Bay Area. Some out-of-state vegans are already begging her to ship.


Chan dreams of opening a farm-to-table, zero-waste, vegan Asian bakery, inspired in part by her time working at Della Fattoria, which started on a ranch in Petaluma. A smaller, urban version might be more realistic, but for now she’s busy juggling duties as a full-time mom. Her 3-year-old son already loves her pineapple buns. Her kids “are going to have the palate to know what these foods mean,” she said. “I’m excited I can make it accessible for my kids and other generations.”


Try one of the Bay Area’s new vegan Asian baked goods shops:

Annie’s T Cakes: Preorder $2 pineapple cakes online for pickups in Oakland. anniestcakes.com


Sweet Condesa: Preorder vegan calamansi mini pies ($30 for three) for pickup March 28 in Oakland. sweetcondesapastries.com


Tai Zhan Bakery: Keep an eye on Instagram for pop-up announcements. Past popups have taken place in San Francisco, the East Bay and the South Bay. instagram.com/taizhan.bake


Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: janelle.bitker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @janellebitker


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