When I was a child, the best sound was the bell of a man riding his tricycle past our apartment building. He had a huge steamer loaded with freshly steamed pork and veg bao. In my memory, the baos were as big as my small face and I had to hold them with two hands. He also had a cooler box filled with packets of flavoured milk, papaya and spanspek — my favourite flavours. Grandma would cut open a small corner on these square packets, pop a straw inside, hand me a bao, and off to school I would go.
Bao zi, a common Chinese dim sum, it is also a street food staple, soft and fluffy doughy dumplings. Without filling, it is called “Man Tou”. With filling, depending on the region and technique, it will have a different name, but it always ends with “bao”. I used to explain to the customers at my dim sum eatery, bao zi is like “a chinese dombolo”. I find bao to be very similar to African steamed bread or dumplings that you’d find in or accompanying stews, both in its preparation technique and texture. Bao zi is a dombolo with filling inside. Bao zi is one place where Chinese and SA cuisine meet.
The internet is filled with an Asian dumpling craze. I love seeing how creative people are with creating their own versions of bao zi. That is precisely why bao zi is so great.
There are 18 types of bao zi from Asia, and counting. Here is how to differentiate a few commonly known ones:
Char siu bao — if you’ve ever experienced the Cantonese yum cha culture, where people gather to drink tea and eat dim sums, you’ve definitely tasted a char siu bao: a soft, light-as-a-cloud fluffy bun filled with sweet barbecue sauced pork, Cantonese style, steamed in a bamboo basket until the top of the bun splits open, revealing a richly aromatic pork shoulder pulled and cooked in a sweetish BBQ sauce. The char siu bao is ready to be eaten
Xiao long bao, another firm favourite outside of China, is characterised by the word “xiao”: small, bite-sized, delicate and thin pastry wrapping, aesthetically beautiful, but also generously filled with meat and veg mix, but emphasis is on the freshness of ingredients as well. So if you’ve ever come across them in a freezer at an Asian grocer, walk away. Xiao long bao is only delicious when it’s prepared on the spot.
Sheng Jian Bao is a bao prepared similarly to char siu bao, but the filling is usually more savoury, characterised by its heating process: instead of being steamed in bamboo baskets, it is heated in a pan.
Soup dumpling are similar to the delicate xiao long bao, except it originated from more than a thousand years ago, where the ancient chefs figured out how to hold rich, hot broth along with meat filling, in a delicate pastry.
Gua bao, the plain sandwich bao originated from Taiwan, is by far the most popularly known bao outside of Asia. Shaped like a purse, one can add any combination of ingredients to make a variety of sandwiches. My personal favourite is char siu pork slices, a dash of chive mayo, topped with sweet and tangy pickled ginger. A simple, balanced, three-ingredient-only bao sandwich.
Lastly, there are various sweet bao, filled with red bean paste or custard, and also the kaya bao, which originated from south East Asia — custard and custard. The list goes on.
Here is a simple vegetarian bao. It is like a sheng jian bao but will be steamed before pan fried. This is my go-to recipe whenever I have surplus vegetables in my kitchen. A way to address food waste is to stuff them all into baos and freeze for that quick snack later.
For the dough:
- 500g x all purpose or bread flour (for this recipe I used wholewheat bread flour)
- 1 tsp x yeast
- 1 tsp x salt
- 250ml x lukewarm water
For the filling
- 250g x green beans, finely chopped and blanched
- 250g x baby corn, finely chopped and blanched
- 300g x portobello or shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped
- 200g x vermicelli noodles, soaked in lukewarm water for 15 min, then finely chopped
- 200g x smoked or firm tofu, roughly chopped
- 200g x chestnuts, boiled for 25 minutes, finely chopped
Note: I was visiting friends in Hogsback and happened to find chestnuts on the property, so I thought it’d be lovely to add to the filling mixture, for a nutty flavour and texture that can go well with the mushrooms. You can play with any ingredients you like for the filling, but some roasted and chopped nuts would add much flavour
- 2 TSP x “oyster” sauce, made from mushroom extract
- 2 TSP x finely chopped garlic
- 2 TSP x finely grated ginger
Mix salt and yeast with flour, add lukewarm water gradually while kneading, till the dough is mixed thoroughly with water, let it sit to rise to about double the size;
In the meantime, prepare filling
Add oil to the frying pan, and then chopped garlic. Sautee the mushrooms and chestnuts until the moisture of mushroom evaporates completely and it starts becoming slightly crispy;
Then add green beans and baby corn, and let it cook for about 3- 5 minutes. Add the vermicelli and tofu, mixing the filling well. Turn off the heat and let it cool down completely.
Now it’s time to assemble your bao. There are a lot of pleating and folding techniques online if you want to learn to craft a beautiful bao. But don’t panic if you can’t do it, as long as the top is closed, a bao is born.
After the dough has finished proofing, turn it out on a clean surface, dust with flour. Knead for a few more minutes to get rid of any air bubbles. Roll the dough into a long tube, then divide the tube into equal sized round balls.
Take each dough ball, press it flat and then use a rolling pin to roll from the edge towards centre, to make individual discs. Alternatively, you can roll out the dough into a flat sheet, then use a circular cookie cutter to create equal sized discs.
Put a small amount of filling at the centre of the disc, then attempt to fold the edges around the filling. The goal is to make it all the way around, so it’s closed off completely.
Place your bao in a steamer and steam for 20 minutes;
Brush a thin layer of oil in a pan, heat the oil on a medium heat then reduce to a low heat. Add the bao into the pan, fry on each side for four minutes or until both sides are golden brown.
Et voila! Drizzle with sweet chilli sauce and serve.