The ad says: “Born May 2013 at The Blue Breeze Inn – shamelessly copied ever since.” But it’s not true. Julian Liew-Young wonders why a restaurant would make such a demonstrably false claim.
The pork buns at Ponsonby “tiki bar” The Blue Breeze Inn are famous, and fair enough. They taste great. They won the people’s choice award last year in the Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year Awards and they’re probably ordered more often than not by every table of diners in the place.
But despite what the restaurant says in a recent advertisement, they weren’t invented in Ponsonby in 2013.
These buns are called guabao, which literally means “cut bread” in Mandarin. Guabao were popularised in the West by David Chang at his New York restaurant Momofuku and they’re in the 2009 Momofuku cookbook. Chang is a very high-profile chef: he’s been in the Time 100, he’s won four James Beard Awards and Anthony Bourdain has called him “the most important chef in America today”.
But even David Chang doesn’t claim to have invented guabao. In the cookbook, he writes: “Are they something that sprang from our collective imagination like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead? Hell no. They’re just our take on a pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating.”
He also explains he learned about steamed bread in Beijing, eating “char siu bao — steamed buns stuffed with dark, sweet roast pork” and ordering “Peking duck, which the restaurant serves alongside folded-over steamed buns with fluted edges”.
Momufuku’s folded-over pork bun features pork belly, hoisin sauce, cucumber and coriander. If you’ve eaten at The Blue Breeze Inn, that may sound extremely familiar.
Further shout-outs to Eddie Huang, Taiwanese American co-creator of the TV show Fresh Off the Boat. In response to some people mis-crediting David Chang with inventing the pork bun, Huang opened his own guabao restaurant, Baohaus, also in New York. In an interview with Stephen Colbert he clarified that the Taiwanese were the OGs in the guabao game: “This is a dish from Taiwan, that people from Taiwan have been cooking for upwards of 50 years … this is our food, this is our cultural identity.”
That’s how you do it, right? If you serve a traditional dish, you acknowledge the source. If it’s good enough for two of the most famous chefs on the planet, shouldn’t it have been good enough for The Blue Breeze Inn?
The Spinoff asked them. Co-owner Mark Wallbank said on the phone that the situation was a “tangled web”. He added that they “didn’t invent it” and the advertisement had been “misconstrued”. He suggested we speak to his business partner, Nigel Shanks.
Shanks, in an email, wrote: “We were not attempting to take any credit for the invention of the pork bun – just our version that was born at the restaurant when we opened in May, 2013. We certainly are aware that David Chang at Momofuku made his version of the dish famous.”
He added: “However, we have noticed that since our version was launched, and became a signature dish at the restaurant, that the pork bun has popped up at numerous restaurants and cafes in and out of Auckland … The intention of the ad was to showcase a popular dish we have had on the menu at the restaurant since opening in a fun, tongue in cheek way, directed to our market who are by and large familiar with our lighthearted approach. We mean no offence.”
It’s not clear exactly how the guabao at The Blue Breeze Inn differ from Chang’s, but whatever they’ve done it’s a matter of styling rather than recipe. Notably, Wallbank and Shanks did not deny the source of the recipe, and good on them for that. But I do struggle to understand how anyone would read that advertisement and not think the restaurant was claiming to have invented the bun. “Misconstrued?” Not really.
I do believe them that they mean no offence. In fact, The Blue Breeze Inn could teach a few things to some other fusion restaurants. What do the owners of White & Wong think they are doing with that name: is it a joke they’d like to explain? Would anyone care to enlighten us on the connotations of Monsoon Poon, for that matter, or defend that restaurant’s very tired “love u long time” jokes? Angry red face emoji.
But seeing as we’re talking about cultural appropriation now, there are a couple of other things about The Blue Breeze Inn to mention. On its website it says: “After a research expedition to China in 2012, Che [Barrington, the head chef] has returned passionate about the vast palette of flavours, textures and cooking techniques yet to be made available to Auckland diners.” (My shocked italics.)
Seriously? This is the third century that Chinese restaurants have been serving Chinese food in New Zealand. While Cantonese food has been most common, regional cuisines from across China are not new. You can easily find eateries serving northern dumplings, Sichuan peppercorns and Muslim Chinese spices and I’m not just talking about halfway down Dominion Rd. Let’s not deny these pioneering chefs and entrepreneurs who have dedicated themselves to their craft.
The Blue Breeze Inn calls itself a “tiki bar”. Tiki bars and tiki lounges were a pre-war Californian fabrication of what many Americans wanted the Pacific Islands to be: kitsch decorations, carefree lifestyles and easy women. Think South Pacific, with far more booze and the women in far fewer clothes. Fun in the sun minus the natives; unless they are “serving” you.
Tiki bars cherry-picked the aspects of Polynesian cultures they wanted. For example, many didn’t want to serve Polynesian food so they opted for the exotic food more generally available in America at that time … Chinese food.
I should clarify that I don’t have a problem combining Polynesian and Asian cultures. I think it opens exciting opportunities. Call it Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, Aukilani or àokèlán, this is the largest Polynesian city in the world and the fastest growing ethnic group is Asians. It’s a serendipitous time and place to develop a unique identity in a process that started long ago: the history of Māori and Asian cooperation goes back to the earliest Chinese settlers. We’ve got a heritage to draw on here.
Is this too much fuss about someone telling porkies about a bun?
Not really. Chinese New Zealanders face mistrust and misunderstanding on a daily basis and elections just make it worse. We get blamed for so much, it would be nice to receive credit for something for a change. Even if it is just a pork bun.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.