I don’t remember the last time I had a sha yung (沙翁). It must have been a random pick-me-up from a local bakery that just so happened to roll out a fresh batch and you just can’t resist the aromatic waft that carries down the entire street. Sha yungs were not something enjoyed frequently either; the traditional Chinese pastry often thought too fried, too sugary — too “yeet hay” as my mother would say. But whenever it did make an appearance upon our dining tables, it was swept up in seconds and devoured with adoring praises.
It’s a memory similar to one from executive chef Ringo Chan, who broke my sha yung dry spell with a freshly baked box he had whipped up in the morning after missing ones he had while he was younger. “Sha yung is a childhood memory for [me],” he says. “Every time I passed Jordan, it [would] always take me back in time.” He had his first — and best, he reminds me to add — sha yung there; a local neighbourhood bakery that has sadly shuttered, but chef Ringo has always remembered as being “super yummy”.
And, here they are: Beautiful golden-fried puffs with distinct cracked crevices, glistening with a crystalline coat of sugar. Irresistibly fragrant, too. “Sha yung is essentially deep-fried dough, made from flour, sugar, egg and butter,” Chef Ringo explains. “It takes around 18 minutes to prepare, from start to finish, and they’re best eaten freshly fried.”
His sha yungs are still warm to the touch. And they taste exactly how they appear: light as you pick it up, crisp upon first bite, and as the coated crust breaks open, extremely airy within. Chef Ringo credits this to the tweaked recipe that he’s taken his time to perfect. “Some don’t use baking soda, but we do as it makes the pastry softer,” he reveals. “The proportion of eggs are also higher, so that also contributes to the softness of the dough.” It’s at-first savoury, from the fried batter and egginess, and then delightfully sweet. A satisfying crunch too, prompted by the sugared exterior.
The closest comparison I can make to sha yung — to those unfamiliar — is probably a sugar doughnut. Or maybe a churro. It’s difficult to draw similarities since sha yung seem to have it all: savoury and sweet, crispy and moist all in one bite. The exact kind of snack to have if you’re the kind that insists on having sweet after savoury, then savoury after sweet and the cycle repeats. They’re a continuation into the extensive roster of deep-fried dough dishes that are common in Chinese cuisine — see: fried dough sticks (油炸鬼) that you dip in bubbling bowls of congee, or ox-tongue pastry (牛脷酥), the true Chinese doughnut, that has nothing to do with ox tongue (it’s just shaped like one) and everything to do with being a humble, sweet breakfast pastry. The sha yung sits at the end and assumes the role of dessert, best, as reminded to me multiple times, enjoyed piping hot (like, burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth-hot) to enjoy a tiny bit of caramelisation that happens as the fried puff is rolled onto a bed of sugar.
So for celebrations this Chinese New Year, take a trip down memory lane with a fresh box of sha yung. Your family will love it. In any case, the age-old holiday is all about coming together and sharing food in welcoming of the Year of the Tiger. Start with the sha yung.
Chef Ringo Chan’s sha yung (HK$25) is available daily at the Four Seasons Hong Kong cake shop in limited batches: 12pm, 2pm and 4pm from now through 28 February. They are available for pre-order 24 hours in advance here.