bao buns: what are they and what’s the best way to eat them?

Bao buns come in many different shapes, flavours & sizes. They have been enjoyed across Asia for thousands of years, sold everywhere from corner shops to Michelin starred restaurants, from Tokyo to Taipei. This blog will only scratch the surface of these glorious, steamed buns. Really, it’s more of a love letter to one of our all-time favourite foods!

What are bao buns?

Bao or Baozi are said to have been invented in China during the 3rd century by a military strategist called Zhuge Liang [181-234]. They were first named Mantou but over time they began to be referred to as baozi or bao meaning to wrap in Mandarin. Today there are many different variations of the original bao sold all over Asia and beyond under many different names. 

There are two main components of a bao: the filling, and the steamed bread wrapping. The fillings vary hugely, from savoury meat fillings to sweet custard ones. The wrapping around the sweet bao buns is normally a white wheat-based dough that’s wrapped around the filling and then steamed, resulting in a soft fluffy bun. 

different ways to eat bao buns

 At first glance there are two noticeably different styles of bao; open and closed. The ‘closed’ bao are completely wrapped in dough before being steamed. This type of bao is sold all over Eastern Asia but are particularly popular in Mainland China and Japan.

‘Open bao’, known as gua bao are made by half folding a flat piece of steamed lotus leaf bun around a filling. This type of bao originated in the Fujian province of mainland China, but were later brought to Taiwan where they became a staple street food.

You can find both styles of bao in restaurants and supermarkets here in the UK.

sweet or salty

When it comes to what’s in your bao, there is a lot of choice. The fillings on offer will usually depend on where you are in the world. If you order a classic bao in Taipei you’d most likely to get an open style gua bao filled with a thick slice of marinated pork belly, in the Sichuan province of mainland China you would probably get a Yacai Baozi filled with pickled vegetables, or in Tokyo, you would be given a Nikuman bao made with seasoned minced pork.
Wherever you are there is usually some choice outside of the most popular option. In Japan, bao are called Chukaman and are sold hot from convenience stores throughout the winter. Their fillings range from pork [Nikuman], to sweet red bean paste [Anman], custard pudding [Purinman], and even pizza sauce [Pizzaman]!

breakfast, lunch, or dinner

One of the best things about bao, is that you can eat them at any time of day. In fact, they are most often eaten as a grab-and-go breakfast in China!

on their own or with a side 

Bao are most often eaten on their own. However, this is not always the case. Here are a few of our favourite things to eat with bao.

with more dim sum!

Our favourite way to eat bao, is with even more bao! Try them with other dim sum, gyozas and other types and flavour of bao. Pick out a selection [we make a fair few!], whip up a couple of dips and make a big sharing spread for you and your friends. When it comes to the dip, hoisin sauce, sweet chilli or a simple soy sauce with sesame oil make great pairings.

with veg/salad

We love to eat bao alongside some bouncy or zingy veggies. For zingy veg, we suggest some quick pickled cucumber. This is easier to make than you think; simply take a peeler to a whole cucumber and make some long ribbons [we leave the skin on], then dose them in a bit of vinegar [rice wine vinegar is the best] & some salt then leave them for 5 mins. Serve with some sesame seeds and chopped spring onion on top.

with your main dish

Bao do well as a supporting act. We eat them alongside ramen, stir-fries & sushi all the time. Our bao go from freezer to plate in 1 minute! So, whenever you think you’ll want a little extra on the side, they are perfect!

did you know? The bao we have spoken about here are the ones with a fluffy bread wrapping. However, they have some not-too-distant cousins. Notably, tang bao.. meaning soup wraps in Mandarin. We could write a whole blog about these… we probably will! They come in many shapes and sizes & with all manner of fillings, each with jellied stock folded in that melts and fills them with hot soup. Truly delicious!