Food trends tend to fare well in Malaysia, which has seen the waffle wave, the artisanal ice-cream uprising and matcha madness in recent years. Salted egg was all the rage once too, as was extra-spicy everything, tapioca pearls in places they should not be (such as pizza), and the visually polar opposites that were activated charcoal in buns and breads and rainbow-themed desserts.
Joining this platter of in-fashion treats are artisanal doughnuts, among the more unassuming recipients of a gourmet makeover. Fried dough balls existed in every civilisation and culture but the closest predecessor of the modern doughnut was the knot-shaped olykoek (oily cake), the sweetened cakes fried in fat that Dutch settlers brought over to New York (then called New Amsterdam) in the 18th century. Origins of the contemporary ring shape are harder to trace with a few possible innovators, but doughnut cutters with two concentric circles to punch out the middle of the dough were available by 1870. An enterprising mind then realised that the cut-out middles were novelty treats in their own right, resulting in mini bites such as Dunkin’ Donuts’ munchkins.
That explains the fried dough portion of the pastry, but not the addition of flavours. Smithsonian Magazine proposes that the credit might belong to Elizabeth Gregory, mother of Hanson Gregory. He claimed to have invented the ring-shaped doughnut while on board a trading ship in the mid-19th century while she “made a wicked deep-fried dough that cleverly used her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind”, and “put hazelnuts or walnuts in the centre, where the dough might not cook through”.
Over the decades, doughnuts gained a reputation as a quintessentially American treat, fed by pop culture characters such as Homer Simpson (The Simpsons), Liz Lemon (30 Rock) and Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation). And while the stereotype of the police officer snacking on doughnuts is wildly exaggerated, the image does have some basis in reality. Doughnut shops often opened in the early hours of the morning and cops on the graveyard shift in the 1940s and 1950s tended to grab a bite there at odd hours as they were cheap and convenient. In his autobiography, Time to Make the Donuts, Dunkin’ Donuts founder William Rosenberg wrote that he wanted to ensure his franchises were “hospitable places for the police” who also “protected the stores”.
Doughnuts wound their way around the world, oftentimes by way of American franchises. Malaysia was no stranger to the notion of fried and sweetened dough. Kuih keria, a local deep-fried version made from sweet potatoes, is believed to have originated from the Malaccan sultanate in the 15th century, predating even the Western pastry.
American-style doughnuts eventually found their way here and Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first Malaysian outlet in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, in 1987, where powdered sugar and sprinkles reigned supreme alongside fillings such as chocolate, strawberry jelly and custard. The first wave of premium doughnuts took place between 2007 and 2009 when franchises such as J.CO Donuts & Coffee, Big Apple Donuts & Coffee and Krispy Kreme arrived on our shores.
Over a decade later, we are due for a doughnut renaissance and it is local bakers who are delivering it. Somewhere between kuih keria and cronuts (the croissant-doughnut crossover invented by renowned pastry chef Dominique Ansel), there rose a market for unusual, experimental and gourmet varieties. Much like the chicken and egg, it is hard to tell whether demand or supply came first. All of a sudden, artisanal doughnut businesses were mushrooming, especially online and on Instagram.
The key differences between commercial doughnuts and these artisanal delights are that bakers of the latter tend to focus on quality ingredients and small batches, and are freer to experiment with flavours, featuring everything from sesame and miso to calamansi and fried chicken. Approaches vary just as widely. Businesses are operating from homes or cloud kitchens, bases include brioche or sourdough, and doughnuts can be pre-ordered for pick-up or delivery, with excess treats offered on social media for quick-fingered customers to claim on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who prefer not to salivate over luscious photos online might happily stumble upon an artisanal doughnut at a café and find their dessert horizons (and waistlines, if this becomes a habit) unexpectedly broadened.
While artisanal doughnuts are largely boutique or local enterprises, they are trending worldwide. Market research company TechNavio estimates that the global doughnut market will grow by US$5.69 billion between 2020 and 2024, in part aided by a pandemic that saw at-home or side businesses take off and a demand for desserts skyrocket to sweeten the endless numbing days of lockdown.
As the world settles into a new post-pandemic normal, artisanal doughnuts seem likely to stay. And the doughnut world is big enough for all contenders. Even the adult who can afford and appreciate these gourmet treats might still find comfort in the classic sugared ring or nostalgia in the old-school saccharine glazes and almost-waxy sprinkles reminiscent of childhood.
DONUT MIND IF I DO
Artisanal doughnuts promise a “hole” lot of gratification. While there is something fundamentally fun and innocent about doughnuts, upscale iterations emerge from their trays Instagrammable, insouciant and absolutely indulgent. Pre-order any of these decadent treats for a good time.
What began as a personal project during lockdown quickly flourished into a business at the Cookhouse cloud kitchen in Taman Medan, Petaling Jaya. In addition to the rich texture and pillowy softness of its sourdough doughnuts, part of Halo Doughnut’s success is its enthusiastic approach to research and development. Over 50 flavours have been shared on its weekly rotating menus so far, including the Burnt & Salty (brown butter glaze with black sea salt flakes), Nadardin (lemon meringue with saffron and rose water) and Yangnyeom (spicy Korean fried chicken glaze). A must-try is the Cinnamon Affair, rolled in sugar spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Prices start from RM6, with a minimum order of four pieces. Vegan options are available on select days.
From a home-based sourdough micro-bakery in Bandar Kinrara, Puchong, Selangor, Basket Break serves small batches of brioche sourdough doughnuts naturally leavened with wild yeast. Its brioche dough is slow-fermented for a flavourful tang, requiring three days to turn into fluffy mouthfuls of happiness. “Sourdonut” flavours include the vanilla bean brûlée, creamy lemon curd and hazelnut-rich hojicha sprinkled with black sesame crumble, as well as the “plain but never boring” cinnamon sugar. Fans of the sourdough used here might also like its application in the brand’s cookies, made from the discards of its sourdough starter, the quirkily christened Yeasus. Fresh loaves of sourdough bread are also sometimes offered. A minimum order of four doughnuts is required, with prices starting at RM7.50 each.
For a doughnut with a difference, check out the shokupan base of Donut Plan’s glazed and flavoured rings. The Japanese milk bread is beloved for its moist, light and springy texture, which explains the label’s tagline: “Shokupan donuts with a bounce.” The wholesome pastry is tasty enough to enjoy on its own, but toppings such as sweet-and-sour raspberry jam or maple beef bacon evoke its ability to complement sweet and savoury flavours alike. Check out favourites such as the Yuri Matcha, Lotus Biscoff and Lemon Poppyseed, as well as recent innovations such as the Fig Jam. A foursome is the minimum requirement for every order and prices start at RM6 a piece.
Its inclusion in this list will raise eyebrows, as The DoughNADs specialises in bombolonis rather than doughnuts, but claimed its spot here to showcase a different style of sweet and doughy treats. These delicate Italian desserts are distinguished by their airy texture and filled-to-the-brim pockets, and are so named for the explosion of cream each bite causes. A certified pastry chef is behind these fluffy, yielding pillows, made from all-natural ingredients and free from preservatives and artificial colouring and flavours. A box of six bombolonis is priced at RM50, with vanilla bean, chocolate caramel, coffee cream and tiramisu among the assortment of available flavours.
This article first appeared on Sept 27, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.