The humble bao has been given a make over
Steamed buns have evolved into one of the city's most sought-after snacks with a host of new outlets offering inventive twists on the tasty mouthful, writes Bernice Chan
THE HUMBLE BAO has come a long way from the simple stuffed, steamed buns that were traditionally ordered as dim sum or picked up from street vendors. In Hong Kong, they have recently become the go-to comfort food and have undergone a transformation with new creative fillings inspired by East and West.
Little Bao on Staunton Street was probably the first place to popularise the modernised steamed buns. Taking a cue from a trend that started in New York, chef and co-owner May Chow reports the reservation-free spot has had queues of diners since she opened Little Bao four months ago.
"We're such a small restaurant that it's easier for us to engage with and understand our customers. We get a range of clientele from 16-year-old students to bankers. Students can just order an ice cream sandwich if they want," she says.
Little Bao has about a dozen menu items including sweet-soy-braised pork belly, pickled leek and cucumber sauce; braised shiitake tempeh with truffle mayonnaise; and green tea ice cream with condensed milk bao. Savoury baos are served in between two steamed white buns, while the dessert baos are sandwiched between fried buns.
There are some interesting sides such as mac and cheese - actually cheung fun (steamed rice rolls) smothered with mentaiko cheese sauce and Japanese breadcrumbs. Also on the menu is orange chicken - deep-fried chicken tossed with salted egg yolk, honey and orange zest.
While the majority of the customers are first-timers curious to see if the place lives up to the hype, Chow is willing to vary things for regulars, including one customer who likes to have his pork belly bao deep fried, to further intensify the flavours.
The newest place to jump on the modern bao bandwagon is Man Mo Cafe, named after the famous temple near the restaurant on Upper Lascar Row in Sheung Wan. Swiss-born restaurateur Nicolas Elalouf has created a Western restaurant that serves dim sum. On the menu is the "burgerbun" that is presented like a pastry bao, but contains a beef patty.
Elalouf says it's like a reverse burger. "Usually with a burger you can see the meat and cheese and so on, but here we have a bun that we bring to the table and invite the guests to bite into it and add the sauce," which he says is a combination of Thousand Island dressing and some secret ingredients.
Elalouf's beef cheek bun, which is similar to a steamed char siu bao, comes with beef jus served on the side. "The beef is disassociated from the sauce, so you have to dip the bun into the sauce and then it is the perfect combination," he says. The chef's "kebabun" features slow-cooked Australian lamb shoulder with spices such as Espelette pepper, cayenne pepper and paprika before being placed in a halved pastry bun with greens and a cherry tomato.
Bao Wow opened in Wan Chai in November and churns out some 500 baos a day. The ones served here are similar to the gua bao in Taiwan but are bigger, making them look like steamed white tacos.
"We thought that people needed an alternative to hamburgers and sandwiches," says co-owner Wendy Wong Dick-yee. "The steamed bun is neutral in flavour, so you can add whatever fillings you like. We focus on catering to Asian tastes."
On Bao Wow's menu are the popular gua bao with steamed pork belly, crushed peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar that is reminiscent of the Taiwanese originals. Also available is the kimchi bulgogi bao, made with grilled beef, house-made kimchi and bulgogi sauce. There is also a Thai-inspired fish fillet topped with Asian slaw and fish sauce; and for dessert there's an ice cream-filled deep-fried bao for a crunchy, soft and sweet finish.
First-timers should sample the bao platter which has one of each. Side dishes include taro fries with a delicious sriracha and mayonnaise sauce. For the all-important bun, Wong had to consult a bao sifu to learn how to make the dough and how to make it into the shape needed to hold the fillings, which were developed over six months.
Wong says that opening Bao Wow was rewarding . "It's great to get positive feedback from people and of course seeing them come back."
66 Staunton Street, Central, tel: 2194 0202, facebook.com/littlebaohk
Man Mo Café
40 Upper Lascar Row, Sheung Wan, tel: 2644 5644, facebook.com/manmocafe
28 Tai Wong Street East, Wan Chai, tel: 2528 9505, facebook.com/baowowhk
Fatty Crab Hong Kong
11 Old Bailey Street, Central, tel: 2521 2033, fattycrab.com.hk
Harlan Goldstein's Comfort
5/F Grand Progress Building, 15-16 Lan Kwai Fong, Central, tel: 2521 8638, comfort-dining.hk