stories about strangers
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baking baba with the yangs // xizhou

Crispy, flaky and layered with lard, this was one of our favourite Chinese breads.

BAKING BABA WITH THE YANGS

MEET THE BREAD OF YOUR DREAMS, XIZHOU

China, as you can imagine, is full of surprises. Daily life may be often nonsensical, the landscapes and history unbelievably breathtaking; but the one thing that really surprised me about China? The just-baked, flaky, damn-well delicious bread. I knew our travels across the country would offer up hand-pulled noodles, freshly folded dumplings and a daily rotation of rich roasted meats or smoky grilled skewers. But I had no idea that, tucked away in some of the most remote parts of China, I'd be eating some of the best bread of my life. 

It began with the lard- and sesame-filled shao bing from Hangzhou, baked in a tandoor-style oven fresh for us every morning. Next came the chewy Northern-style flatbreads from a late-night stall in Shanghai, then a sweet loaf of pork-floss-stuffed brioche we lined up for in Suzhou. A bag of Jinhua's crispy su bing balls were a warming snack, while the slightly sweet pillowy mantou buns in Guangzhou made an excellent breakfast. Finally, and, quite frankly, the biggest game-changer, there were the flaky rounds of baba (喜州粑粑) from the lakeside town of Xizhou.

We were in Dali's old town, a pretty spot at the foothills of the Cang mountain range. As charming as the cobblestone streets and traditional white houses were, the town was a tourist hotbed, with its little laneways and ancient temples trampled daily by thousands of Chinese visitors and their selfie sticks. We'd rented a motorbike with a plan to escape the frenzy, and go for a ride around nearby Erhai Lake. The bike was our ticket to freedom. We left the well-beaten path for muddy routes between stinky spring onion fields and verdant rice paddies, and trails along the sparkling water's edge, watching fisherman work seamlessly with their cormorants, and old men, lazily smoking from their huge bamboo tobacco pipes. But the best discovery was our decadent pit stop at the town of Xizhou, because what is epic scenery without an epic lunch to wash it down?

Literally meaning 'happy prefecture', Xizhou is a small village of 2,500, populated mostly with the Bai ethnic minority. All roads in Xizhou lead to Sifang Jie square, a busy marketplace offering traditional Bai eats and Yunnan delicacies – none more popular than the baba from Fuxing Posu Baba. Sold to tourists as 'Chinese Pizza', baba is much more than a Chinese reinvention of an Italian legacy, it's a beast of its own, a meal of its own. Layered with lard, baba is a traditional leavened bread, said to be invented in the Qing Dynasty and with regional differences across Yunnan. In Xizhou, the dough is fermented and rolled with many layers of lard before being filled with either a sweet or savoury filling.

Like ants to a crumb of cake on a countertop (we're having an ant problem in our apartment right now, it's on my mind), we were drawn to Fuxing by the sweet aroma steaming out of the basic charcoal oven at the front of this shop. Behind the oven is Yang Huixiu, a fourth-gen baba baker – the shop named after her grandfather, Fuxing. Working quickly above the hot stove, her husband, Mr Yang, fills a round bowl with red-hot coals, and tops it with a plate of just-rolled baba. Behind him Mrs Yang is stationed at her bench, rolling and kneading the dough and asking us what we want to try without a pause in her methodical movements. An English-speaking diner came up to us to help translate, saying we'd picked a good spot – this was the original home of Baba, and it was the best. Excellent news. I couldn't read any signage, but Google Translate tells me that Mrs Yang's great grandmother is said to have invented the bread, with every family member passing down their special recipe to the next generation. Mrs Yang begins to roll us both a sweet and a savoury baba, filling the dough with pork mince, spring onion and spiced salt for the savoury version, and a traditional Yunnan filling of brown sugar, rose petal jam and red bean for the dessert version. 

The soft dough rounds slide onto the oven plate and are roasted over the coals until they've puffed up like clouds. Mr Yang constantly brushes the baba with more lard to ensure a crispy crust, then chops it up onto a plate for us to get into. The pork baba is salty and rich, the flaky dough crumbling everywhere as we take a bite. The flavour somewhat resembles a ham quiche, but it has the guts of a doughy, plump pastie, better than any damn cold quiche you've ever been served (Q: is quiche ever satisfying, really?). Cut into warm wedges, its sweet counterpart oozes the sugary, caramelised filling. The pastry is super short, crumbling as we pick it up, and the dough slightly undercooked – like the way you'd want to eat a hot, molten brownie. Heaven is real people, and it exists at the table of this tiny Chinese bakery.

It was life-changing, delicious and, yeah, slightly over-indulgent. Yang's baba left me never wanting to eat again, forming a big food baby in my stomach; a heavy, solid lump of dough that stuck around all afternoon. But the bloated belly was totally worth it – I'll never stop thinking about that baba, and I'll never stop raving on about China's incredible breads.

Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki