Forgive me, my faithful (existent?) readers. I haven’t been very good about keeping up with this blog….at all. However, I intend on making a big comeback to the world of blogging. I hope this time around, I’ll be a lot better about updating this site with stories and pictures from the many adventures I have with food.
To start off my first blog back, I thought I’d write about my rediscovery of an old enemy of mine, the bao .
To give a bit of background, bao, or steamed buns, better known in Mandarin as 包子 (pronounced bao zi) are one of the main staples of Chinese cuisine. I can only compare bao zi’s role in the Chinese diet to bread in the Western diet. They come in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Their role in meals can range from being almost a substitute for rice in the sense that they’re like a supporting actor to the main dishes to them being the actual main event of the course itself. Just as bread can be used for sandwiches or eaten plain (i.e. baguettes), the bao can be enjoyed with or without a filling. I consider them one of Chinese cuisine’s “blank canvasses”.
As a child, I was never a huge fan of the bao. When it came to steamed buns with fillings, I was always a bigger fan of the filling and never keen on the white steamed dough that surrounded it. I especially hated what people in northern China are known to love eating: mantou (饅頭), the plain version of a bao which is just steamed white sugar dough. What is the point of it? A blob of steamed dough?! What flavor utility does this food have? What is it’s point of existence other than being filling and relatively easy/cheap to make? Despite my childhood preferences, I promised myself I would revisit all of the foods I remembered not liking as a kid and give them another chance.
When I was in Taiwan last year, I decided to give the bao a fresh start. I was staying in Taipei at the time and a few of my friends kept on telling me about the infamous “Taiwanese hamburger.” Wary of the name and eager to try foods that I wouldn’t be able to find in America, I kept on brushing off my friends’ invitations to go try this new “delicacy” until one day I finally caved in to go see what the hype was all about. What people called the “Taiwanese hamburger” was actually what I knew as 割包 (gua bao) the entire time.
This gua bao from 藍家割包, a street stand famous for their gua bao, is a steamed plain white bun, similar to a mantou, stuffed with slow cooked braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, fresh cilantro, finished with a generous dusting of peanut and sugar powder. While the components of this treat might sound strange, their combination in the warm steamed bun is a perfect match made in Taiwanese heaven. The saltiness of the braised pork belly, stewed and cooked slowly with soy sauce and other aromatic spices like star anise and cinnamon cut with the acidic crunch of the pickled mustard greens pair off great enough as it is. On top of all of that, the sweetness of the peanut powder and the freshness of the cilantro really bring the whole stuffed bun together. I swear it is one of the best creations ever.
What makes this street food snack so great? Nothing other than that fluffy, soft, but sturdy bao that holds everything together. Sure the best part might be the filling, but the bun’s role in combining all of the ingredients and the importance of that role is simply undeniable. The classic pork belly and pickled mustard greens are pretty traditional in the Taiwanese sense; they appear at the Taiwanese dinner table in the form of a main dish. However, what makes the snack a delight is it’s presentation in the cloud like bao. Not only does it hold everything together, the bun also acts as a sponge for all of the braised pork belly juices that ooze out with every bite. With the gua bao from 藍家割包, you really never miss a bit of flavor all thanks to that beautiful bao.
By the way, photo credit to my friend, Peter Shrieve-Don. The picture I took was horrible and didn’t do the gua bao any justice.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed my “little” reflection on giving old foods a new try. Food narrow-mindness is an easily curable problem…just try it again! I’m sure you’ll rediscover what you thought you didn’t like in new and more exciting ways.