Just when did a humble steamed wheat bun take over the hipster culinary landscape?

2- bao-knw.jpeg -Illustration by Kitty N. Wong

Bao. There’s something very quaint and comfortable about the name, alluding to a food that most of us will know from the steamers of the dim sum table or the formica tabletops of our favourite cha chaan teng. But few have taken the humble bao and elevated it to another status.

What? Pillowy, snow white wheat buns filled with robust ingredients such as hoisin-glazed pork belly and any manner of complementary foliage – pickles, usually, to offset the richness of the main filling – and piquant sauces. Common form: the “foldover” bun, which look like fat albino lips when viewed face on. Cleverly engineered for eating with the hands.

Who? So who can lay claim to this magnificent creation? Not that it matters – say the word bao and any foodspotter will smugly hit back with any of the following words and phrases: David Chang, Momofuku, gua bao, “the Taiwanese totally did it first”.

When? So a little bit of bao trend history: as far as we’re concerned, no one was doing buns as clever or as noteworthy when May Chow burst onto the scene in late 2012, peddling “Chinese burgers” at Island East Markets. Instead of taking the foldover bao format, she enlisted the help of a local old-timer to create her unique burger bun-shaped baos, which sandwich contemporary Asian fillings such as minced tempeh with shiitake mushrooms and pickled daikon. Fast forward to autumn 2013 and she launched Little Bao in Soho, which must be the only place in town so packed that the hostess once sheepishly told us that we might have better luck at Yardbird down the road. Since then, baos have billowed out across Hong Kong’s food landscape, with several new contenders entering the steamer basket.

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Illustration by Kitty N. Wong

Where? Chow’s Little Bao, in our opinion, is the original trailblazer behind this explosive trend. Our favourites here include the free-running chicken bao with black vinegar glaze and Sichuan peppercorn mayo and the fried LB ice cream sandwich featuring deep-fried bao with a puck of bittersweet matcha ice cream and a drizzle of condensed milk. Bao Wow recently opened its doors, after several months of anticipation. Their versions are more traditional in form but, like Little Bao, offer creative interpretations for their fillings. We liked the spicy kick in the bulgogi kimchi bao, not so much the bland Thai fish fillet. Fatty Crab have gotten in on the act as well, offering a duo of pork belly buns with a salad of  soft-boiled eggs, mixed greens and herbs, sliced shallots and pickled daikon. Pork is also on the menu at Comfort by Harlan Goldstein, which is elbowing in on the bao action, with their “bao bao” featuring “melt in the mouth” pork belly and hoisin glaze – the bun here is soft and tender, ditto the the pork, which is slow-cooked. It’s a textbook perfect bao in the Taiwanese sense, though we’d prefer more pickled vegetables to counter all that soft deliciousness. Lastly, an honourable mention goes to Han Ga Ram, a run-of-the-mill Korean restaurant near Tatler Towers that have surprised us recently with their rather good bulgogi and spicy pork bao “sliders”.

In London, Sydney or New York? You’ll not be wanting for baos with purveyors such as Flesh & Buns, Yum Buns, Bao Town, Baohaus and, of course, Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Why? The soft, slightly sweet and milky taste of steamed bao will always be a brilliant canvas for every more creative Asian flavours to paint their colours. We’re not quite tired of them yet. 

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