Why tradition and attention to detail are so important to bao buns
Few people understand the elevation of this traditional dish better than the founders of London’s Taiwanese BAO restaurants, where steamed buns are the signature dish. While the bao originated in Chinese cuisine, in Taiwan, it’s the ultimate comfort food, made with a twist on the many varieties seen across Asia. And that notion of craftsmanship is prominent throughout BAO’s eponymous cookbook. Its co-authors, the restaurant chain’s founders – Erchen Chang, Shing Tat Chung and Wai Ting Chung – were inspired by the Taiwanese vendors who perfect their products over time, becoming local masters. A vendor may be third-, fourth- or fifth-generation, doing the same thing day in day out, with a menu of just a few items. ‘I love the beauty in this,’ says Erchen. ‘It feels like there’s so much craft mastery and solitude in the making of the food.’
The elegance and precision of the details appear on every page of the book, which tells the BAO story – from its early days at three of London’s food markets and the intricate flatpack stall designed by the founders themselves to its cult status among foodies and the strict 1cm gap required between the filling and edge of an open bao. Even the serving requires an appreciation for exactness. Just before eating, baos should be rotated to face the diner, who may notice that the peanut powder is sprinkled so that the coriander barely peeks out. ‘The details made everything,’ says Erchen. ‘It’s what we always wanted to achieve, so when you get that perfect plate of food, you feel you can take that moment to appreciate the time and craft that’s been put in.’
What is the secret to preparing and enjoying bao?
Baos are made from a yeast-leavened dough, and getting them to the cloud-like fluffiness they’re famous for is tricky business, requiring just the right amount of proving. But the dough’s malleable nature is its strength, too. Once you learn how to work it, baos can take different shapes, sizes and consistencies. Different fillings can transform the dish from sweet to spicy to savoury.
BAO’s signature buns feature two styles found in Taiwan: the baozi (a bao that is stuffed with a filling before steaming) and gua bao (a folded bao that is stuffed after steaming). The aim was not to produce Taiwan’s ubiquitous snack to the letter, but to render a poetic translation of it, one that continues to draw customers to BAO’s six London restaurants and its online shop, Convni.
According to the BAO cookbook, the aim of the ‘BAOverse’ is for everyone who dips into it to enjoy a moment of solitude, fun and creativity in the everyday. There are two parts to the idea. For the diner in the restaurant, it’s all about having a beautiful bao presented to them and ‘taking the time to enjoy this plate of food’, says Erchen. But there’s another part that perhaps creates a fuller appreciation for the traditions and skills involved. For those who find pleasure in preparation, making your own bao can be a satisfying project, allowing you to immerse yourself in the process and master the craft.
Every good meal has a journey of mastery behind it. Getting comfortable on the journey, Erchen suggests, is the key: ‘You kind of need to have that patience that not every time is going to be great, but you will get there.’
What are some tips for those who are new to making bao?
Erchen Chang’s top tips for preparing bao include…
Take your time. Erchen says to view each step of the process as distinct: ‘When we put the recipe for our signature Classic Pork Bao in the book, I thought, “Who’s going to cook it?” It’s really quite lengthy, but once you understand the soy braise, once you understand the fermentation, it’s actually super-simple. It’s not hard, it just takes time.’
Get a visual. If the recipe calls for something you’ve never seen or tasted, Erchen suggests looking at photos and videos online, so you have an image to guide you. ‘Take a recipe where something needs to be reduced to a sticky consistency,’ she says. ‘Your sticky and my sticky are different – my sticky might be slightly shiny, and to you, it could be thick and reduced to almost nothing. To have a visual in mind is actually quite useful.’
Think on your feet. A recipe may work perfectly at home, but turn out differently elsewhere. Take induction hobs versus fire, for example – the way the heat is transferred is completely different and will affect the cooking process, so consider any adjustments you might need to make.
Buy great produce. Take time to source the freshest and most authentic ingredients: ‘Go for really good produce,’ says Erchen. ‘Good produce means you’re halfway there.’
Keep trying. There will be frustrations when trying to crack a new recipe for the first time. Erchen compares it to unrequited love: ‘You have to go away, let your fire come down. And then, sometimes, the idea will come up again so you can approach it differently.’ Every time you cook, you’ll notice something you can do better next time. And that’s the real key to mastering the perfect bao.
What is the recipe for bao?
Here, Erchen shares the restaurant’s recipe for bao, shaped in the gua bao style. It’s made using the tangzhong technique, an Asian culinary method that helps dough absorb more liquid and retain moisture, resulting in a softer, fluffier bread. It involves cooking a portion of flour and water into a thick consistency, similar to a roux, in a bamboo steamer.
Makes about 20 bao
For the tangzhong
- 100g plain flour
- 500ml cold filtered water
For the bao dough
- 100g tangzhong (see above)
- 420g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 90g caster sugar (superfine)
- 40g milk powder
- 2.5g fast-action dried (active dry) yeast
- 5g baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 80ml milk, at room temperature
- 80ml water, at room temperature
- 10ml vegetable oil, plus extra for brushing
Put the flour into a small saucepan, pour in the cold water a little at a time and mix in the flour, until smooth. Slowly warm over a low heat until it becomes gluey and you can draw a line on the surface. Remove from the heat, cover tightly with clingfilm (so that the film touches the surface of the tangzhong) and leave to cool. The tangzhong can be stored in the refrigerator, covered, for up to three days.
Put 100g of the tangzhong and all the dry ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Start mixing on a low setting and then slowly add the milk and water. Finally, add the oil and continue mixing until the dough is smooth. Cover with a damp cloth or clingfilm and leave to prove somewhere warm for 2-3 hours, depending on the temperature, until doubled in size.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes – it will gradually become more elastic and the surface of the dough will become smooth. You can now use this dough to make different bao shapes, including gua bao, hot- dog bao and round bao.
Shaping the bao
Divide the dough into 40g pieces for gua bao. Give each a strong knead, then roll into smooth balls. Cover with parchment paper to prevent them drying out while you roll the rest.
Flatten one of the 40g dough balls with the palm of your hand, then, using a rolling pin, roll it into an oval shape 8cm long. Brush the top with oil, then, with a short edge facing you, place a chopstick horizontally across the middle and fold the oval in half over the chopstick. Remove the chopstick and repeat with the remaining dough balls.
Place each bao on a square of parchment paper, a little bigger than the size of the bao, then transfer to a large tray. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper and leave to prove somewhere warm for 15-20 minutes, until the bao have doubled in height. They should look relaxed, puffed up and the surface should no longer be damp. Imagine touching a baby’s smooth skin. (Alternatively, you can do this final prove directly inside bamboo steamers.)
How should you steam bao?
When the bao are ready, carefully transfer them on their squares of paper to a prepared bamboo steamer. Cover and steam over a medium-high heat for 15 minutes, until they look soft and podgy, not firm, and their surface glistens with a satin sheen. If you feel any resistant patches in the centre that don’t bounce back, keep steaming. Remove from the steamer and either eat straight away or leave to rest at room temperature until the steam has fully evaporated and the bao are completely cool. If your steamer doesn’t fit all the bao, shape them for the second prove only after you have put the first batch in to steam.
Overproved dough results in overexpansion and will look flat and bubbly. The bao can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to five days or they can be frozen for up to a month.
If you are reheating cooked bao, add them to the prepared steamer, cover and steam over a high heat for about 10 minutes until they bounce back nicely when pressed with a finger. If you feel any resistant patches in the centre that don’t bounce back, keep steaming. If steaming from frozen, it’s the same process, but add another 2-3 minutes in the steamer.
How to prepare a steamer
Use a deep saucepan that fits your bamboo steamer snugly.
If you are steaming fresh dough, there’s no need to line the steamer basket/s – you need only use the squares of parchment paper that the bao are on. If you are reheating bao, use muslin (cheesecloth) or a sheet of parchment to line the basket/s.
Fill the pan with about 5cm of water, place the empty steamer on top and bring to the boil. This will warm the steamer so that when you place your bao (or other food) inside, it will start steaming straight away.
Bao can be frozen in batches for later use or, for those who want to skip making their own bao, they can be purchased online at baolondon.com
To find out more, visit baolondon.com
Edited extract from BAO by Erchen Chang, Shing Tat Chung and Wai Ting Chung, published by Phaidon, £29.95. Also available at baolondon.com
You can read more articles about cookery and crafts in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.