Yum (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Yum (Image design: Tina Tiller)

FoodMarch 10, 2022

Panipopo is the best dessert – Pālagi just haven’t tried it yet

Yum (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Yum (Image design: Tina Tiller)

A love letter from Madeleine Chapman to a very basic sweet treat.

The best panipopo recipe isn’t written down. It exists only in the minds of aunties who stay up through the night cooking for toona’i. The best panipopo recipe has no ingredients list and no method. The finished product looks simple enough: a tray of plain bread buns sitting in a pool of coconut milk.

When I asked my aunty Tu’utu’u for her recipe she told me that the correct amount of flour to use is “enough” and the perfect length to knead the dough for is “until it’s ready” and the cooking time is “until it’s done”. Which all translated to “either watch me and figure it out or leave me alone”.

In April 2020, having somehow eaten exactly one panipopo in my entire life, I decided to figure it out.

Sāmoan dishes like panipopo, panikeke, German buns and sapasui cater to communal dining (the first German bun recipe I found began with “13 cups of flour”) and my experience of panipopo until 2020 was seeing large foil trays of them at funeral functions; condensation misting the glad wrap covering and coconut sauce slightly congealed at room temperature. I never once ate one because they looked soggy (which they were) and gross (which they weren’t) but they were, without fail, the most popular dish on the table.

In episode four of Takeout Kids, Martynique spends the week between school and Samoa’s Finest, her family’s takeaway shop in Porirua.

Having quit my job as a staff writer at this here website a week before the country went into lockdown in 2020 and being too intimidated by the sourdough starters all over my feed, I opted for something different. You can’t be worse than everyone else at something if no one else you know is doing it (write that one down, kids). For reasons mostly related to my bland palate, I focused my culinary efforts on coconut dishes. I made lu’au (taro leaves filled with coconut milk) from scratch, scraping fresh coconuts to make the milk and using taro leaves from the garden.

There was something hilariously on brand in me venturing into the world of cooking by spending an entire day preparing a dish that had a grand total of three ingredients plus salt and pepper. The lu’au was delicious. Turns out even the clumsiest of chefs can produce a decent meal if they have 12 free hours in the day to cook it.

Once I’d managed a main, I moved on to dessert. As someone who, until that point, only ever cleaned (never cooked) in the kitchen, the thought of making dough was a little bit terrifying. Since my aunty had no recipe, I had no recipe. Reading various blogs online revealed few variations in making panipopo. I suppose it’s hard to mix things up too much when the dish is essentially a bread roll soaked in coconut milk and water. So I decided to try putting together my own combination of recipes. First: which bread roll?

A fluffier pani means more sauce (Images: supplied)

I had no idea, all I knew was that I loved the ones from Chinese restaurants. So that’s what I searched on YouTube and an alluring thumbnail of perfectly round, shiny buns was enough to convince me I’d found the perfect pani recipe. The recipe required a standing mixer, which I did not have, so I mixed by hand. On the video the dough was smooth, stretchy and moist but not sticky. Mine was clumpy, didn’t stretch and I got cramp in my arm. But it still rose, and rose again the second time it was left to sit. And again in the oven while the buns baked.

The result was a comfort food in its purest form. I remember watching a movie as a kid where one of the characters finds an injured bird and users tweezers to feed it tiny pieces of bread soaked in warm, watered-down milk. The simplest of foods for the most vulnerable of creatures. In that first lockdown I wasn’t the most vulnerable of creatures but panipopo was quite literally break soaked in warm, watered down (coconut) milk. It tasted like safety and comfort and home.

I tried some variations – chocolate chips, cinnamon, Milo, raisins. The chocolate chips were alright but there’s a reason people don’t mess with the classic.

Experimenting (Images: supplied)

Despite being loved by nearly everyone who eats them, panipopo are largely unknown to Pālagi. So I made some for a colleague who sent me a text later that night to say it was “one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted”. I made some for my (non-Sāmoan) flatmates when I moved back to Auckland and they garnered a range of reviews, none negative. I made some and left them at the office when we returned to work (at this here website) and got a message from an unexpected colleague: “Your panipopo might be the yummest thing I have ever eaten lol”.

I had always been hesitant to introduce Sāmoan dishes to non-Sāmoan friends because it felt risky for all the annoying cultural reasons, as well as an understanding that as far as traditional foods go, there’s not a lot from Sāmoa and it’s relatively bland. Great for me but not necessarily everyone else. I needn’t have worried with panipopo. Panipopo is the dessert of the people, catering to the most basic human needs.

If you’ve never tried one, they’re easy enough to make at home and will impressive all your Pālagi friends. You won’t regret it.

Mad’s chosen panipopo recipe

pani = bun, popo = coconut

Super Soft Dinner Rolls 港式餐包 (from Tasty Cooking Studio)

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ cups lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups cake flour*

Oven – bake 180 degrees

  • Mix milk, sugar and yeast in a stand mixer or large bowl and stir well.
    Cover and put aside for five minutes
  • Add butter and salt, mix until salt is dissolved (don’t worry too much about the butter)
  • Add flour
  • Mix on slow speed until flour is incorporated into the mixture then mix for about 3-5 minutes on medium speed until thick and sticky
    *if mixing by hand, add flour incrementally until dough feels smooth and consistent. You may not be able to add all the flour but use as much as you can until your arms feel like they’re about to fall off.
  • Flour a smooth surface and knead the dough only a few times to make a ball
  • Place in a large, oiled bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place for 20 minutes (it should double in size)
  • Divide the dough in half and roll out each into a rectangle 1cm thick
  • Using all eight fingers, carefully roll up the dough like a scroll and cut into sausage-roll sized pieces
  • Evenly space them into a cake tin (or aluminium foil tray). No need to grease.
  • Cover tray(s) and let rise for 40 minutes

*Cake flour is a finely milled, very low-protein flour that’s not really a thing in New Zealand. A good substitute is to replace two tablespoons of plain flour per 1 cup with two tablespoons cornflour (ie put two tablespoons cornflour in a 1-cup-capacity measuring cup and then add your plain flour to make 1 cup).

Coconut sauce

1 can Kara coconut milk (you can use other brands but Kara is the best)
1 can warm water
Between ¼ and ⅓ cup of sugar (traditionally, the sugar quantity has been equal to the coconut milk and warm water, but that is so much sugar. You can still get the delicious sweetness with ¼ cup)

  • Combine ingredients and stir so sugar dissolves (that’s why the water must be warm)
  • Pour coconut sauce evenly over the buns, making sure to soak the tops of each as you do. The sauce should settle halfway up the sides. Leave a small amount of sauce for basting.
  • Place in the centre tray of the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown on top. Baste the tops with the leftover coconut sauce every four minutes (or until there’s none left).

Best served immediately.

Watch the whole Takeout Kids series here. Made with support from NZ On Air.


The Spinoff’s first-ever food newsletter is here. Written by Charlotte Muru-Lanning and produced in partnership with Boring Oat Milk, The Boil Up is your weekly catch-up on what’s happening in our diverse and ever-changing culinary landscape, covering the personal, the political and the plain old delicious.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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