All it takes is a simple yeast dough rolled into rounds, folded over and cooked as is. No filling until it hits the table, no pleating dough, no mess.
If you’ve ever ordered Peking duck at a Chinese restaurant, you know the pleasures of a good bao, the steamed bun into which you pile a helping of the meat, eat and repeat. (Bao can refer to several types of steamed buns; we’re talking about the open-sided kind, comparable in shape to a taco shell.)
But lately I’ve spotted more bao with imaginative fillings, from Thai chicken curry to fried fish spiked with wasabi mayo.
Andrea Nguyen, a food writer from Santa Cruz, Calif., is seeing a lot of culinary crossover with bao. In her 2014 cookbook, “The Banh Mi Handbook,” she pointed to Chicago’s Saigon Sisters restaurant as an example of how ingredients used in banh mi, the famed Vietnamese sandwich, would be equally at home in a Chinese steamed bun.
Meanwhile, at New York City’s BaoHaus, order bao filled with fried chicken or fish; at Saucy Porka, an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago, bao filling options include pork carnitas, braised short rib and tofu.
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Like Southern biscuits, bao are great sauce swabbers. That absorbency makes them work well with braised meats and other juicy foods, says Saucy Porka co-owner Amy Le.
Le and Nguyen trace the origin of creative bao back to David Chang, whose take on the pork belly bao helped make his reputation at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. Today, his restaurants offer bao with brisket, shiitake mushrooms, chicken meatballs and al pastor with pineapple, avocado and cilantro.
Jumping on the trend at home is surprisingly easy; all it takes to make bao is a simple yeast dough rolled into rounds, folded over and cooked as is. No filling until it hits the table, no pleating dough, no real mess. If you don’t have a steamer, a wok or covered roaster works fine (just make sure to keep the steaming plate above the boiling water).
Cathy Erway, author of “The Food of Taiwan,” likes to create a build-your-own-bao station with sprigs of herbs, pickles, vegetables and sauces ranging from Sriracha to mayonnaise.
Whatever kind of bao you make — and clearly let your imagination go — be comfortable knowing steamed buns have global appeal.
“They are very charming,” Nguyen says. “They literally smile at you and say ‘Eat me.’ ”
Makes 8 large buns
A basic yeast bun recipe from Andrea Nguyen’s “The Banh Mi Handbook,” published in 2014. Grilled or roasted meats work well with these buns, Nguyen notes, as do Vietnamese-style pulled pork or Chinese barbecued pork.
1½ teaspoon instant (fast acting/rapid rise) dry yeast
¾ cup warm tap water (about 100 degrees)
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1. Put the yeast in a small bowl or measuring cup and add the water. Let sit for one minute to soften, then whisk in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Set aside.
2. Put the baking powder, sugar and flour in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse two to three times to combine. Run the machine and pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube in a steady stream (start slowly and gradually pour faster). Keep the machine running until a large ball forms and cleans the sides of the bowl; expect some dangling bits. The finished dough should feel medium-soft and tacky but not stick to your fingers. (If sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time until dough can be handled.)
3. Transfer the dough and bits to a work surface and give it a few turns to gather it into a neat ball; you shouldn’t need any flour. If the dough feels tight, wet your hands and knead in the moisture.
4. Smear a little oil in a clean bowl and put the dough in it. Cover with plastic wrap and put in a warm place, such as an oven with the light on, to rise for 45 minutes, or until nearly doubled.
5. Meanwhile, cut eight parchment paper squares, each about 3 inches wide. Have the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and a pastry brush nearby.
6. Transfer the risen dough to a work surface; you should not need to flour it. Roll the dough into a long rope, about 2 inches thick and 16 inches long. Use a knife to cut it crosswise into eight even pieces. Lightly roll each piece between your hands into a ball, then smack it with the palm of your hand into a disk about 1/3-inch thick.
7. With a rolling pin, roll each dough piece into thin ovals, a good 5 by 3 inches. Roll from the top down, or from the midline to the rim, and rotate often. Brush a little oil on half of the oval, then fold over to form a triangle.
8. Place on a parchment paper square and put in a bamboo or metal steamer tray, spacing them about 1 inch apart and away from the wall of the steamer. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces, putting overflow buns on a baking sheet after the steamer trays fill up.
9. Loosely cover the buns with a dry kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm spot for 20 to 30 minutes, until nearly doubled. Meanwhile, fill the steamer pan or pot halfway with water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Lower the heat until you are ready to steam.
10. Steam the buns over boiling water, one or two trays at a time, rotating their positions midway, if needed, for six to eight minutes, until puffy and dry looking. Keep in the steamer trays and use slightly warm or at room temperature. Or completely cool and freeze for up to 1 month; thaw and re-steam or refresh in a microwave oven covered by a damp paper towel.
TAIWANESE PORK BELLY BUNS
Makes 8 sandwich-style steamed buns
Cathy Erway, author of 2015’s “The Food of Taiwan” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), writes that this dish, called gua bao, is the classic Taiwanese version. She suggests using store-bought steamed buns from an Asian grocery store. Her book contains recipes for the other major components: the meat, the pickled mustard greens and the crushed peanut garnish. But you can simplify the process if you buy the pickled mustard greens at an Asian market, she says.
8 sandwich-style steamed buns
6 to 8 tablespoons chopped pickled mustard greens
8 pieces red-braised pork belly (see recipe), sliced about ½-inch thick
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (stems included)
½ cup peanut powder, see note
Steam the buns according to the package instructions. To assemble the buns, place a spoonful of mustard greens inside each bun, followed by a piece of pork belly. Top the pork belly with cilantro, followed by a pinch of the peanut powder. Serve immediately.
Note: To make peanut powder, place 1 cup roasted unsalted shelled peanuts, skins removed, and 2 tablespoons sugar in a food processor or blender. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about one minute. Store at room temperature, covered, for up to one week.
RED-BRAISED PORK BELLY
Makes 4 to 6 small servings
1 pound pork belly
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
2 whole scallions, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed
4 to 6 thick discs peeled fresh ginger
½ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup rice wine
2 cups water
½ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup dark soy sauce
1 star anise clove
1. Remove any bone from the pork belly; cut it into thick pieces about 1½ to 2 inches long.
2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or wok over medium-high heat. Arrange the pork belly pieces in a single layer in the pan. Cook without turning until just lightly browned on one side, about 30 seconds. Flip the pieces over; brown on the opposite side, one to two minutes. Remove from the pan; set aside.
3. Add the scallions, garlic and ginger to the pan; stir until just sizzling and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar; cook, stirring, until bubbling, one to two minutes. Add the rice wine; bring just to a boil, stirring to incorporate the sugar. Add the water, light and dark soy sauces and the star anise; return to a boil. Return the pork belly pieces to the pan. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook until the pork is very tender and red stained, at least one hour, preferably two hours.