How to make sourdough in Asia’s humidity was the starting point for Christopher Tan’s Asian baking recipe book, he says

“She was like, ‘But knowing your expertise in other areas and your perspective, you can still teach those of us who have been doing sourdough for a while a different way to look at it.’ So that kind of got me thinking,” recalls Tan while sipping his iced chai at a pulled-tea shop in Singapore’s Arab Street.

The cover of Tan’s book.

“A lot of sourdough books are written in temperate countries, and a lot of the instructions don’t apply here because our weather is so different. I can’t be the only one struggling with this,” he says.

The books do not take into account room temperature and humidity in tropical places such as Singapore, where the mercury hit 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) in March, he adds.

At the time, he was also relatively new to Instagram and saw people trading recipes, sharing stories and swapping knowledge on the social media platform.
The experience inspired him to finally write down some recipes he had always wanted to teach but that were too complicated to make in class, such as youtiao, or Chinese crullers, and haam ji peng, or Cantonese salty fried cakes.

That is when Tan, 51, began envisioning the possibility of another book, NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies, on which he started working in 2021.

Chicken & Mushroom Dai Bao from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies

Not only did he rigorously test recipes for baked goods from places as diverse as Malaysia, Singapore and Japan to Hong Kong, Indonesia and India, but also photo­graphed them all using natural light streaming from his kitchen window.

Some of his recipes for traditional cakes and breads, such as appam (Sri Lankan pancakes), palm sugar ginger cake and shokupan (Japanese milk bread), use a sourdough starter, which gives them a more complex taste, while others, such as his recipe for char siu bao, are researched from old dim sum cookbooks.

One, called Dim Sum in Hong Kong, documented traditional Hong Kong dim sum from the 1950s to the 1980s. While the recipes were written in English and Chinese, the glossary was not translated.

It took Tan years to figure out every ingredient in the sourdough starter, which is used for bao and ma lai go, or steamed sponge cake.

“To get the bursting top for a char siu bao, it’s actually mainly from baking powder, not from the yeast itself. And that’s something that books don’t tell you,” he says.

Pineapple Bun with Butter from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies
NerdBaker 2 has a traditional recipe for bolo bao, or pineapple buns, that he researched from old Cantonese recipes and YouTube videos of interviews with elderly bakers, who explained how they made bolo bao using lard in the dough and topping, and no filling.

“I wanted to present that because I have not seen this in cookbooks in English, the real old-school way of doing it.”

It also irks him that YouTube videos teach people how to make youtiao using milk, eggs and yeast so that they puff up more dramatically. While Instagrammable, they quickly go limp.

“My recipe is tailored for old-school crispiness – just flour, seasoning and non-yeast leaveners,” he says. “I have old Hong Kong cookbooks and Chinese-language cookbooks.

“I study the recipes and try out their techniques and try to figure out what works with today’s ingredients because they are not the same – baking powder and flour are not the same.”

Butterkuchen from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies
NerdBaker 2 has a few ingenious mash-ups that had been on Tan’s mind for years, such as toasted oat and nori sourdough, kimcheese klippekrans – a cheese and kimchi toastie – and pandan kaya butterkuchen, where German butter cake meets Singaporean pandan kaya (coconut jam) toast.

“I had travelled to Germany for work, to attend a cookware expo, and was dazzled by all the bakeries there. You can walk into any bakery there and everything comes in huge trays and there are so many things.

“I’ve loved this bread ever since and I was thinking maybe I can make it taste like kaya toast,” he says.

The only recipe specifically created for the book was the Durienne Tropezienne.

“I was looking on Instagram and everyone is into layered doughs and all these weird-shaped croissants and things, which are still trending, and slashing sourdough, and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do a durian shape? And then I figured out how to do it,” he chuckles.

Durienne Tropezienne from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies

Not only does he present his recipe with the fruit that people either love or hate, he also sings its praises over two pages in NerdBaker 2, under the title, “The Glory of Durian”.

“The pulp’s texture will invite comparisons: toothpaste-soft, satin-smooth, pudding-creamy, caramel-sticky, boarding-school-custard-thick, coating your mouth like a dense nut butter or slipping down as lightly as a mousse. It might be as starchy as sweet potato purée, or lightly fibrous like a banana,” he writes.

Tan says NerdBaker 2 is the sequel to his 2015 book NerdBaker: Extraordinary Recipes, Stories & Baking Adventures from a True Oven Geek, which he describes as “a sleeper hit”.

“It sounds really strange to say, but it came out before baking became a thing, before the pandemic,” says Tan of the first book, which is both a memoir and a cookbook.

“Even my publisher thought it was slightly risky, and was like, ‘I don’t know who’s going to read this book,’ because they had not been baking.”

Char Siu Bao from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies

Tan’s fondness for baking began when he was 14 years old, when his father got a job in Britain and moved the family there.

“Baking was my first love […] and bread was the first thing [I made]. And that was just after my parents and I moved to the UK.

“So suddenly, all these ingredients were much more easily available to me, like good flour and good milk, and yeast, and I just started baking.”

Over his career, Tan has written and edited numerous food stories, but 15 years ago he began teaching others how to cook and bake, and discovered he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to others.

When he launched NerdBaker 2 in January, at a bookstore on Singapore’s Orchard Road, many of his students came, along with his fans.

Parsi Sugee Cake from NerdBaker 2: Tales from the Yeast Indies. Photo: Tales From The Yeast Indies

“This lady came up, she said, ‘You know, I have all your books, but I haven’t cooked a single thing. That’s just my bedtime reading.’

“I was like, ‘No, no, no, you have to get into the kitchen. I write them to empower you,’” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve had some students who have been coming to my classes for 12 years. They have stuck with me that long. I think it’s because they do go home and they do make my recipes and they work for them. So they’re always keen to learn more.”


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