The old Chinese man disappears behind the giant bamboo baskets filled with steaming snowy white, pillowy baozi. Every morning, he is selling his delicate treasures to passers-by on their way to work.
All over China, this scene is repeated endlessly. This portable snack or meal is definitely the king of street food in Asia. Baozi, literally “little bag”, is a bun made with flour and yeast , filled with various preparations, and steamed in bamboo baskets. It is a popular dish and widely available on street stalls. While they can be eaten at any meal, baozi or simply bao are often eaten for breakfast.
The history of the steamed bun goes back thousands of years and can be traced to the Jin Dynasty. Legend has it that Zhu Geliang in the Three Kingdoms Period replaced a real human head with an object made of flour and meat shaped as a human head for the memorial ceremony of the Lushui River. This offering was called Steamed bun head. The tradition continued during the Jin Dynasty, using large size bao stuffed with meat. In the Tang and Song Dynasty, steamed buns were smaller and sometimes without the stuffing. Its popularity spread throughout Asia along with the Chinese marchants and immigrants, taking different names in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thaïland, Japan, and the Philippines.
Here are the basics of Baozi to help you differentiate the main varieties. The first five are all eaten on the go, holding them with your hands, bite after bite !
- Dabao or “big bun” measures about 10 centimetres and is served individually. It is the most popular portable snack or meal. Its consistency is fluffier and is generally stuffed with pork meat or vegetables for the salty version, or with a red bean purée for the sweet version. Eat it on the go, bite after bite, holding it with your hands !
- The Chashaobao or manapua is a typical cantonese version, filled with barbecue-flavoured pork. You will find this type in the Guangdong province of China and in Hong Kong.
- The Malay form of the baozi is called pau. It is stuffed with potato curry, chicken curry, or beef curry. Some variants might even have a quail egg in the middle.
- The Vietnamese equivalent is named Banh bao.
- In Hawaii, it is called manapua.
The following types are all eaten using chopsticks, usually in one bite. Remember never to stick your chopsticks in one of them. It would be taken as an insult by the restaurant owner!
- Xiaobao or “small bun” measures about 5 centimetres wide and are served in a steamer containing, usually, three pieces. They are commonly eaten in restaurants but can also be purchased as take-away. Soy sauce, dark vinegar, chili paste, and fresh ginger are provided as condiments to dip the bao into, using chopsticks.
- In Shanghai, the xialongbao is a small baozi filled with a juicy broth and served with a straw. After “drinking” the delicious broth, you can eat the bun using your chopsticks.
- One of my favorite, the zhimahbao, is a steamed small bun filled with a black sesame paste. This sweet variety is generally eaten at the end of the meal, as a desert.
- In occidental countries, the baozi becomes wonton, dumplings or even ravioli.
Whatever the names, Bao is on the rise, and it is not just because of its dough. From New York to Paris, London or Sydney, this pillowy bun is becoming the new star of the modern street food, appearing on the menus of the trendiest food trucks. So, what is your favorite type?