Chinese Bread? A Historical Review and 7 Modern Breads of China.

While the Chinese are known for their noodles which adorn most of the common dishes found in America, there are many breads that can be found throughout China. Historically these breads were made from millet. Millet is a small seeded grain that is grown all over, but was first domesticated 10,000 years ago in China.

Chinese do eat bread. Today the bread products of China use rice and wheat flour more than the millet they used historically. Regional breads are found in all parts of China and are a common street faire throughout the region.

Today, I have compiled for you a list of common breads you will find at street vendors throughout the Chinese provinces.

History of Grains in China

When we think of grain domestication, most people think of the Egyptians and others in the fertile crescent and their domestication of wheat, particularly the popular emmer wheat of Egypt. Around 10,500 years ago we see clear direct evidence that wheat, barley, and oats had been domesticated in the Near East. The Near East being the eastern most areas of southern Asia that is closest to Europe. Mainly these crops are found in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.

Egypt quickly got the grain as well, and focused on emmer wheat, which became their staple crop. Greece also grew wheat, barley, and oats. Wheat is one of the main cereal crops found around the world today. It accounts for about 20% of the caloric intake for all humans around the world. However, these were not the only cereal crops to be used. In the north of Europe we see a lot of rye. In the Americas we see maize (aka corn). In China and India we see millet and rice.

Rice was domesticated first in India and then China before spreading around the world. Rice is now a staple crop in both countries. It grows so well in the rice patties of many Asian countries that this staple crop makes up another 20% of the caloric intake for humans worldwide.

There are two major types of rice. The long grained rice of India and the short grained varieties of China. Both are used in a variety of dishes and both have become popular in different areas of the world. Some countries, such as Japan, prefer the stickier short grained variety, which the longer grains are more popular in many Middle Eastern countries.

Millet is a small seeded grain that can be grown in many places. Like most grains, it is a member of the grass family. It’s smaller grains make it harder to harvest than the larger grains, like rice, wheat, and maize. In early China, this did not bother them, as it grew well in the Northern climates where ride could not grow. And they did not yet have wheat. Millet made up a lot of the diet of northern China for thousands of years.

Millet is now relatively unused, except in bird seeds. It makes up only a small amount of most peoples diets, where wheat, rice, and corn account for close to half of all the caloric intake around the world.

Mantou – 馒头 (Steamed Buns)

Mantou are steamed buns popular throughout China. They are often used as a festival food, particularly in the north. Made with wheat flour, mantou are often flavored with other ingredients, such as corn, pumpkin, or meats. When filled they are called baozi (包子).

For the Spring or New Years festivals in the North, these are sometimes shaped into butterflies or beautiful flowers, or some other spring shape.

Red Spice House has a great recipe for mantou.

The Woks of Life has a filled baozi recipe with Carrot Ginger Pork.

Shao Bing – 燒餅 (Flaky Sesame Bread)

This flakey, layered flatbread is a common breakfast item in Taiwan. It is also popular in Northern China. It is often serves sliced open with filling in it, much like an American sandwich. It could be filled with things like an omelet, pork, beef, scallions, or a number of other tasty additions.

Here is a recipe from Cooking in Chinglish

Nángbĭng – 饢餅 (Uyghur Flatbread)

Nang is a popular bread in western China, particular among the Uyghur in the Xinjiang Province of China. The Uyghur are a Turkic speaking, mainly Muslim, ethnic and religious minority that have survived ethnocide and other human rights atrocities since 2014.

When this flatbread is formed into a circle it is punctured with a nail studded bread stamp. It is usually made with a low gluten flour, but can be made with a mix of all purpose flour and pastry flour. It is then coated in some seeds. Typically this is cooked in a tandoori. For more about a tandoori, check out this article I wrote on tandoori ovens.

Here is a recipe from Saveur.

Baba – 粑粑 (Chinese Pizza)

Baba Bread: Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Baba is a thick bread popular in the Yunnan province of China. It is said to have been invented during the Qing Dynasty. This thick bread is often filled with meats and other goodies and sold on the streets in many towns in the Yunnan province. Each one seems to claim it is the originator of the dish.

I was not able to find a recipe I was sure was authentic (ish), but My Fermentation had the recipe that looked closest to the pictures of the dish that were taken in Yunnan Province. They even had several different fillings to use inside your pizza.

Cong You Bing – 葱油饼 (Scallion Pancakes)

It has been claimed that cong you bing is the predecessor of modern Pizza. They say that when Marco Polo returned to Italy, he missed this dish so much that he asked a Nepalese cook to recreate it. Pizza was thus created. The issue with this is that the first use of the word Pizza in Italy comes from Southern Italy in 997, some 250 years before Marco Polo was born.

Cong you bing is a pancake made from a dough, rather than the batter used in western pancakes. This dough is filled with scallions and fried to get a crispy edge. This is a dish you will get in many homes around China, and from street vendors.

Red House Spice once again provides a great recipe for us.

Huā Juǎn – 花捲 (Flower Roll)

This is very similar to a mantou as described above, but filled with scallions. They are typically formed into a flower, and are thus called “Chinese Flower Rolls”. They are often stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings, and can be served with breakfast, or any meal. If you like a good Maillard effect, then after steaming your buns, be sure to pan fry them to get a nice golden brown for the perfect char taste.

Red House Spice has been great for many of these recipes, and here is another from her!

Chun Bing – 春饼 (Spring Pancakes)

This pancake came about in the Jin Dynasty some 1500 years ago and has been popular in Northern China ever since. They are often eaten on lichun to celebrate the beginning of spring. Basically a Chinese tortilla these pancakes are often filled with duck to make a delicious duck pancake. They say that using boiling water is key to making this soft.

Here is another recipe from my favorite Chinese chef at Red House Spice.


Jae is a high school history teacher for an online school. After using bread as an example for a few lessons he realized that bread increased engagement in his class. After a lot of research he was able to add even more bread related lessons. Now most of his research is around bread and the history and culture related to bread.

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