They’ve been making dim sum diners happy since around the year 200 A.D., according to Chinese legend (invented, so the story says, by scholar and military strategist Zhuge Liang). But these days, bao have made a break from tradition and are being served up in all sorts of inventive ways.
Formally known as “baozi” but more commonly shortened to “bao” (rhymes with wow), the name means “wrap” in Chinese. These steamed or pan-fried buns can be filled with meat, vegetables and even soup. If you’re a dedicated dim-sum-er, you’ll probably be most familiar with char siu bao, which are filled with barbeque pork. But these days, anything and everything can make up the filling in a bao.
“Bao are like the cool cousin of the hot pocket,” says Yia Vang, chef and founder of Union Kitchen. “They’re what Hot Pockets want to be but never are. They’re less greasy and healthier, and they have a fun name that’s easy to say.” Yang, a Hmong-American who regularly teaches bao-making classes with his mother, Tang, says that bao can be dressed up or down and served at just about every meal.
“They’re great at brunch, but they’re equally good at happy hour or on an app menu,” he says. Vang fills his traditional bao with minced pork, a hard-boiled quail or chicken egg, vermicelli glass noodles and always—always!—a slice of Chinese sausage.
While bao are currently on only 1 percent of U.S. restaurant menus, they’ve seen 54 percent growth on menus over the past four years. If you’d like to be ahead of the curve and add bao to your menu, Vang has some advice: “When I was growing up, I always thought my mom’s bao’s didn’t have enough meat in them. But when I made them for myself, I overloaded them, and they ripped open during steaming. It’s all about having the right filling strategy. I found out that mom knows best.”
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