Steamed Chinese pork, chicken and vegetable buns – an everyday snack of Asian communities, poor students and food lovers alike, has seen a recent renaissance with restaurants such as Momofuku and locally Golden Fields breathing new life into this staple.
Steamed flavoursome buns filled with meat, seafood or vegetables have been a peasant dish in East Asia for hundreds of years. Tracing its history back to post Han Dynasty China, its early cousin Mantou (literally translated to ‘barbarian’s head’) is essentially milled white flour combined with a leavening agent to create a simple 15cm rolled bun that acted as a food staple for the peasants and working men alike. More commonly eaten in the north of China than in the south, these buns along with noodles formed the carbohydrate base for much of the population.
Through immigration and appropriation from other ethnic groups, the base Mantou bun has seen a myriad of variations. One of the most famous is the Bao zi which is often served at Yum Cha. Hailing originally from Hong Kong, this Cantonese staple is often filled with barbecue pork, minced chicken or stir fried chives and shallots – the perfect accompaniment to steamed dumplings or tea. Similarly the Japanese, with their obsession for hand food, convenience stores and food halls have also adopted this dish and made it their own. Called nikkuman or Niku-man, this dish perfectly bridges the gap between high/low, sophisticated/everyday, as it can be found both at the beautiful Isetan Food Hall in Shinjuku or ma & pa street stalls in the back streets of Ikebukuro. Essentially it is the most concise combination of ingredients in one hand full and consequently almost the perfect microcosm of a dish.
Recently this dish has kind of embedded itself in the zeitgeist. New York (and now Sydney’s) Momofuku, created their own version which follows an incredibly simple rule: doughy but not chewy bun + tasty meat + condiment & other = a hand full of amazing goodness. Featuring on the menu in all of David Chang’s establishments this one single dish, besides perhaps Chang’s ramen is the dish that Momofuku is revered for.
Also in New York and just around the corner in the Lower East Side, BaoHaus run by Eddie and Evan Huang has made bao the hero and only item on their menu. How does an unctuous durian dessert bao sound? Or the Uncle Jesse, organic fried tofu, crushed peanut, coriander and Taiwanese red sugar? Delicious right? The Huang brother’s Raison d’etre for this venture was to ‘tear down what people knew about Chinese-Taiwanese food and rebuild it from the ground up…dreaming of elevating this dish from Flushing to Front Street against a soundtrack of Ghostface Killah & Dipset’.
Locally in Australia, the Golden Fields version is a compact closed steamed dumpling filled with a heady soy and vinegar dressing that lathers and moistens the pork belly which lies within. Harking back to his time spent in Hong Kong, Andrew McConnell’s version takes its cue from gua bao buns but less fluffy in texture, this dish has an added level of refinement due to the use of quality ingredients and a considered and deft technique.
Personally, I think it’s a dish that deserves some veneration. For a humble bun to find its way into so many personal food histories from immigrant Asian student’s lunch boxes, to heavenly home made snacks that mother’s feed their adolescent boys to Michelin rated restaurants, it’s a dish that crosses both cultural and socio-economic boundaries and definitely should be celebrated with gusto.
Copyright Leon Goh & Broadsheet 2012