A flakey dessert with a romantic past

Before you ask, no, it doesn’t have wife in it. The wife pie (老婆饼) is a traditional Cantonese pastry with a thin, flakey crust and a sweet filling of your choice, commonly winter melon, purple sweet potato, or red bean paste.

As to its peculiar name, well, we have to travel back in time, and, as with so many ancient stories, we don’t know how far back. The story goes, there was once a young married couple in a small village who were very poor but also very much in love. Sadly,the husband’s father fell ill and they couldn’t afford his medicine. The husband sold flakey desserts on the street to help save his father, but his wife went one step further: She sold herself into slavery to pay for her father-in-law’s medication. Luckily, the husband’s flakey dessert—which he named out of respect for his wife’s gesture—took off, and he was able to buy her back, hence the name “wife pie.”

Another version involves the wife of Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty(1368 – 1644). Before Zhu became the emperor, he was the leader of an uprising against the Mongol rulers. The army was often short of food, so Zhu’s wife, surnamed Ma, came up with the idea for a pastry that could be easily stored and carried. She gathered up all the ingredients she could find— winter melon, wheat, and sugar—and the flakey pie was born. It’s not as romantic as the first story, but it certainly explains why the dessert is so popular around the country, as it was carried far and wide by the soldiers.

The most important thing you’re going to want to remember in cooking “wife pie” is the pork lard. Before you wrap the filling into the wrapper, pork lard is added to the two different types of dough (“water dough” and “oil dough”). An “egg wash,” or beaten egg mixed with water or milk, is what gives the pie its golden sheen. As for filling, go with what feels right; but sweet red bean paste is a favorite, soft and piping hot out of the oven.


Water dough

100g flour

15g sugar

10g pork lard

45g water

10 ml egg wash (1 egg diluted with 2 to 3 tbsp water)

Oil dough

80g flour

50g pork lard


70g red bean

70g sugar


1. Soak the red beans in cold water overnight, then boil until cooked. Blend to make a fine, dry paste. Stir fry with a little vegetable oil if the paste is too moist. Mix in sugar, and set aside. Ideally, the paste should be dry enough to roll into little balls.

2. Mix the ingredients for water dough and set the dough aside for half an hour. Then, make the dough into 16 even, round, thin patties.3. Mix the ingredients for oil dough and place the dough in refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes. Divide the dough into 16 small balls.

3. Wrap the oil dough in the water dough. Roll flat and fold in half three or four times. Let it rest for 15 minutes.

4. Make the dough into a round, thin wrapper. Place the filling onto the center of the wrapper, fold up the wrapper, and flatten slightly.

5. Put the 16 pies onto a baking tray and brush the egg wash on the surface of each. Sprinkle sesame seeds and make three shallow cuts on the surface.

6. Heat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Bake for about 15 minutes. Enjoy!

Wife Pie is a story from our issue, “Taobao Town.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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