Ong Ong Buns: Traditional Baked Delights With a Twist

Bakery owner Aaron talks to &ASIAN about overcoming obstacles, multiculturalism, and cats!
All photos: © Maddie Armstrong for &ASIAN. Please do not repost without crediting.
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Ong Ong Buns: Traditional Baked Delights With a Twist

On a corner of Cucumber Alley in Seven Dials Market, Covent Garden, sits a food stall with a charming tableau. Above the baked goods on display are an assortment of charming cat ornaments, including lucky cats in pastel colours and a glittery framed picture of Ong Ong, the cat that inspired the name for the bakery. One of the buns on display - the ever-popular BBQ pork bun - is in fact shaped as a cat’s paw. Over the stall is a large menu, which, besides the delightful little drawings of its items, offers an extra dose of humour through their whimsical descriptions, giving an adorable impression of what this bakery and its people are all about.

Of Hong Kong heritage, bakery owner Aaron grew up in the suburbs of West London and met his Malaysian wife Icy in Bangkok after visiting for a friend’s wedding. The pair teamed Aaron’s research skills and Icy’s baking mastery and wrapped a business around it during the lockdown of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

“I used to work in research, and it wasn’t fulfilling,” Aaron explains. “And being dyslexic, working with spreadsheets… It added additional pressure and I had to work much, much harder.”

Aaron first got the idea to open up a bakery in January 2021. He speaks about how the job as a bakery owner is much more suited to his situation, but also makes the most of his previously established research talent. “I learn by talking. I get to research what’s good, how our buns fit within a niche and how we can draw other people towards us; then I get to talk to customers where I do qualitative research–that’s what I did in my PhD. I’m very much about learning through talk.”

One of the ways Aaron has discovered something new about himself and his business is that people really like its quirks–bad grammar is the charm of the store on social media. “I had to do everything: social marketing, selling, front of house… I think these days people are more accepting of mistakes. I don’t need to be self conscious about it. The nice thing about being dyslexic and autistic is you’re a little bit different; you have a different view of the world.”

Thanks to loving and loyal customers who accept the brand and Aaron for what they are, he can put less energy into fixing things and more into putting his soul into his work. Ong Ong Buns’ Deliveroo menu went viral when people found the food items’ grammatically incorrect and playful descriptions charming, rather than unprofessional as Aaron had thought. “People actually embraced it. It helped me relax much more. There’s no rulebook.”

As for what’s on this fabulous menu, Aaron details a few food items him and Icy have introduced to London. Originally Ong Ong Buns was situated in Shoreditch, and it was there that Icy produced a Malaysian dessert called Kuih which is popular in Malaysia but not known in England. Being vegan, gluten-free and full of flavour, it was very popular with the hipster area of Shoreditch and it had got people talking about it. However after the move to Covent Garden, Kuih was removed from the menu. “You can’t be too hipster in Covent Garden!” Aaron says with a laugh.

The most popular items on the menu are the BBQ Pork Bun, known as char-sui (叉燒), and the Korean garlic bread. Aaron gives &ASIAN a taste of three of Ong Ong Bun’s most popular delicacies:

  • Ong Ong Nom: The bakery’s signature bun is described as “The naughtiest thing in Covent Garden since Coco de Mer'' on the menu. Soft with a sweet crumbling surface and coconut filling, this bun from heaven is so good it feels forbidden
  • BBQ Pork Bun: Shaped like a cat’s paw with a shiny cushiony exterior, the meat has a sensible touch of sweetness and sits comfortably inside the thick bun 
  • Pandan Coconut Cake: Green and coconutty, this cake is thick but not overwhelmingly so. It’s topped with coconut flakes, has a lovely creamy coconut flavour, with a texture that’s the perfect balance between crumbly and firm

Writer's suggestion: have a slice of Pandan Coconut Cake after an Ong Ong Nom for some authentic-yet-playful Asian food that is filling, fresh, and feels like a hug.

“As a second-generation immigrant in London, I’ve had interaction with all these food cultures, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as... ‘I’m from Hong Kong therefore I want to make Hong Kong food.’ The building blocks of Ong Ong Buns is the bun, but the idea is the Asian bakery. It’s the celebration of multiculturalism.”

The menu doesn’t just stop at food from Hong Kong or Malaysia. As they get more bakers with different backgrounds, more foods are introduced to the menu. “If people like it, I don’t really care if it’s not [from] Hong Kong; it’s not just Asian food. One of our buns has cauliflower cheese which you get in Britain… That’s basically Ong Ong. We’ve just stuffed something weird into a bun. It’s kitsch isn’t it? Kitsch is what we love because we’re a bit different. We like to do things that seem a bit wrong–we put cauliflower cheese in our buns.”

“Kitsch” is one of the three words Aaron likes to use to describe his establishment on social media. All the strange little things, from the personality of the business, to the cat ornaments, to the foods that are like a remix of the different bakers’ heritages, play into each other and create something utterly unique and appealing in that manner. Aaron doesn’t fit into a box, and neither does his bakery.

When asked if there’s any advice he has to offer young Asians in a similar situation who are trying to grow something, Aaron offered, “Try not to mask too much. You’re wasting a lot of energy masking; you’re trying to pretend to be something that you’re not. Find a place in an industry that embraces how you think and behave.”

(Masking is the autistic habit of adopting the mannerisms of neurotypical people in order to be more accepted in society.)

As for plans for the future and evolution of Ong Ong Buns, Aaron has a few up his sleeve. With the current shop in Covent Garden, he plans to reopen a branch in Shoreditch and one in South London. “The idea is to have multiple shops. The head baker [of each shop] gets to make it his or her own. The most popular buns will stay on the board in each one, but the least popular ones will get changed around. My biggest dream is to have that and a central flagship store with a cat cafe.”

But for now, the magic of Ong Ong Buns is all done on-site in one tiny kitchen, behind a kiosk on the underground level of a food court. London, so full of food and culture, has only seen what’s on the surface compared to what Ong Ong Buns will bring. It’s filling a gap in the food market, one bun at a time. 

“To reach the destination you have to make your own way. We have to work with what we have.”

Ong Ong Buns can be found at Seven Dials Market, 35 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LD and at their website here.
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