To mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, ethnic Teochew Chinese residents of Ho Chi Minh City often exchange boxes of crispy shells. Piafilled with green beans, taro and salted eggs.
Trieu An, the owner of Trieu Minh Hiep Pia boutique in district 6, notes the rarity of the handmade Pia cakes in town. These cakes hold an enduring place in Teochew culture, gracing weddings and Lunar New Year holidays for generations. The name Pia itself is derived from the Teochew dialect, meaning cake.
Unlike the popular Cantonese-style mooncakes, pia cakes are mainly reserved for Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations among the Teochew. In each box, diners will find four pia cakes, each adorned with a golden crust.
A box of four handmade Teochew pia cakes at Trieu Minh Hiep Bakery in HCMC District 6. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong.
Pia made their way to southern Vietnam in the 17th century, brought by the Minh Huong people, a group of Chinese nationals who took refuge in southern Vietnam. Today, the Teochew community of Ho Chi Minh City still preserves this precious delicacy.
The Trieu An family bakery, now in its third generation, carries out every step of the process by hand. According to An, the cakes have a short shelf life of 10 days and are ideally enjoyed fresh from the oven.
In the 1930s, Trieu Minh Hiep, An’s grandfather, moved to Vietnam and settled in the Cho Lon neighborhood, which today constitutes districts 5, 6 and 11 of Ho Chi Minh City. City. At the beginning, the Trieu family business was just a modest basket of Pia sold in local markets.
It was not until 1948 that Hiep opened a small bakery on Binh Tay Street, District 6. The bakery remained in the same location for 75 years, adhering to the same traditional methods used since day one.
THE Pia The manufacturing process has two phases: making the crust and preparing the filling. The filling includes green beans and fresh taro, steamed and mixed with sugar on the stove for about two hours until they form a soft mass. These blocks of filling are then decorated with salted egg.
An said only fresh salted eggs are used, which results in a softer, spongier texture compared to those with preservatives. While the filling is cooling, the dough for the crust is prepared. After a 15-minute resting period, the dough is rolled out and shaped by hand into simple, flat round shapes, without the patterns seen on traditional molded mooncakes.
The absence of flour in the filling gives the cake its soft and delicate texture. Using molds, as An explains, would cause the cake to disintegrate, mixing the crust with the filling. After shaping, the cakes spend approximately 30 to 45 minutes in the oven. When they come out, they are coated with lard, which gives the crust a golden hue.
The contact between the surface of the hot cake and the fat produces a distinct, slightly burnt aroma that greets visitors as they enter the store. What sets An’s Bakery apart is that the cakes are delivered while they are still warm.
“Pia can be enjoyed warm or cold, but nowhere else offers them as hot as we do. When our cakes arrive, they give off an aroma of freshly baked goods and even the boxes give off heat. This experience allows our customers to savor the freshness and artisanal quality that sets our cakes apart from mass-produced ones, even when presented in more elaborate packaging,” said An.
Despite mooncake brands’ trend toward meticulously designed boxes, Trieu Minh Hiep Bakery has stuck to simple paper boxes for years. These boxes, folded by hand and printed in bright colors, are a tradition. However, due to the closure of the box factory, the store now uses printed paper boxes with less complex designs. An explains that the paper boxes absorb moisture and keep the cakes warm, preventing them from becoming soggy. Creating a batch of 30 to 40 cakes takes about three hours.
On an average day, the store sells about 30 to 40 boxes, each containing four cakes priced between VND220,000 and VND280,000 (US$8-11), depending on the variety.
In the month leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year peaks on September 29, customer traffic triples or even quadruples, with the store selling more than 100 boxes a day. Customers often place orders in advance, ensuring quick access to fresh cakes.
“Often, walk-in customers either have to wait for freshly baked cakes or come back the next day, as small-scale production often results in daily stock-outs. Even though our bakers work around the clock, we still can’t respond to the request.” » said An.
A painting depicts the initial business of Trieu Minh Hiep’s family, selling pia cakes in Cho Lon, also known as Saigon’s Chinatown. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong
Minh Hieu, a resident of District 5 bordering District 6, said he often stops at the bakery after work to buy a box or two without prior reservation. When asked to return the next morning when the cakes are sold out, Hieu accepts this as common.
“When I buy here without a pre-order, eight times out of ten the cakes are either already sold out or I have to wait for the next batch to be baked.”
Hieu especially likes them during the Mid-Autumn Festival because they have just the right amount of sweetness, a crispy crust and are not too greasy.
The store owner mentioned that the customer base has continued to grow, expanding beyond the Teochew community to reach people from various locations. However, there are no plans to open additional branches.
The main goal is to pass it on to family members, as they are determined to preserve the business that their ancestors have built over the years and want to ensure that it remains in trusted hands to maintain its reputation .