A while ago, my husband Sam decided to take me on an afternoon drive to Xinzhu (also spelt Hsinchu) to visit a friend. Xinzhu is best known for being home to one of Taiwan’s foremost science parks. Most people don’t usually go there for sightseeing, but perhaps they should. There is an interesting temple, a bike track along the coast and some unique snack food, including Xinzhu’s famous Black Cat Buns (黑貓包).
Growing up in Australia, from time to time we would joke that missing pets might have ended up on the dinner plate (or bowl!) of recent Asian migrants. Now, it is true that some people in Asia like to eat dog. (A school friend from Hong Kong once tearfully admitted the her father forced her eat the family pet puppy.) And maybe even other domestic (or exotic) animals. But cat is not usually an ingredient in meat buns (at least not in Taiwan). And it is certainly not the reason why these Black Cat Buns got their name.
The name of Black Cat Buns is derived from a Taiwanese slang term for a beautiful lady. Once upon a time, an attractive woman was referred to as a ‘black cat sister’, while a handsome man would be nicknamed a ‘black cat brother’. Sexy! The recipe for the buns was brought to Taiwan during the late Qing dynasty, by a chef who used to cook for the imperial household. After he finished working as an imperial chef he headed south and eventually made his way to Taiwan. Over time, he took on an apprentice with whom he shared his unique recipe. She was a beautiful young woman and people used to call her — you guessed it — Black Cat Sister. Over time the term also transferred to the delicious buns that she made.
The Black Cat Buns are made according to a traditional fermentation method. While the method is secret, I assume it is similar to the yeast-free fermentation process for making sour dough bread. The buns are then steamed using some sulphur, which apparently helps to neutralise the sour aftertaste produced from the fermentation method. The resulting bread dough tastes denser, yet fluffier and sweeter than any other steamed bun I have ever tried.
But the dough is only half the reason why the buns taste so good: the inside meat filling oozes juiciness. My friend forgot to mention this characteristic before we greedily bit into our buns, and Sam and I ended up with meat juice (‘soup’) all over our clothes. Not that this stopped us going back for seconds (Sam even went back for a third!) The buns were larger and more substantial than most offerings, yet we found ourselves with an insatiable appetite for more.
We originally bought a few piping-hot buns to sample (NT$20 each). But we soon decided to go back and buy a box of ten cold buns to take back home (NT$200). The buns were beautifully laid out in an attractive box. If we had been able to resist devouring the contents, they would have made a lovely gift.
Black Cat Buns are made in a small shop at 187 Beimen St, Xinzhu (新竹市北區北門街187號). The shop is open daily from 11.00am until midnight, or until sold out. According to their business card, they also deliver orders to other areas in Taiwan. Their phone number is (03) 523 3560. The shop only sells one type of meat buns.