The humble bao bun is, to me, an endless source of surprise and wonder. When I was in elementary school, my mom would often pack two or three little baos into my lunchbox with a mystery filling. One day it could be flowing with red bean paste, another day with lotus root, and sometimes, when she was feeling particularly adventurous, it’d be bursting with spicy pork floss or even Malaysian curry. Not once was I disappointed.
The most ubiquitous baos are the ones that have a filling, like char siu (Cantonese-style barbecued pork) or kaya (coconut jam), but the term can also be used to describe clamshell-shaped mantous (called guabao in Taiwan) that have recently been elevated into popular cuisine, thanks to restaurants like Momofuku in New York and Bao in London. The term bao even encompasses melon-sized tangbaos filled with steaming hot soup drunk through a straw, and the creatively-named but truly Frankenstein-ian “baozza”—baos filled with pizza toppings (think pepperoni, cheese, and tomato sauce).
My mom, ever the creative, has upped her bao game over the years, too. It’s a cathartic process that I sometimes help her out with. (I say help, but really, I just make a mess of things.) Together we’ve tried a myriad of experiments, with varying degrees of success, from infusing bao dough with pumpkin and sweet potato puree to filling them with rendang or shredded coconut. We’ve dyed baos blue with butterfly pea extract (not the greatest idea), and even made croissant-shaped baos, which was all kinds of wrong.
At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for a classic, no-frills pork belly bao. It combines the pillowy texture of a traditional bao bun with the fatty, umami-sweet richness of a classic Chinese red-braised pork (hong shao rou), which, in my opinion, is the ultimate fat + bread combination. (Grilled cheese don’t even come close.) For this recipe, I used my mom’s trusty bao recipe, which has served her well over the past two decades. As for the red-braised pork belly, I adapted Betty Liu’s family recipe to work better as a bao filling (long strips instead of cubed pieces), and made it slightly saucier, so you can have more of that umami goodness to brush onto the bao.
Tips for Bao Success
For the smoothest bao buns, make sure to give the dough a quick knead after the first proof. This presses out any air pockets, which, if left in, will expand during steaming and create large holes in the bao bun.
Make parchment squares while the dough rises, so you can get the perfect shape.
To get the right level of steam for your bao buns, your water should be on a steady boil (slightly more vigorous than a simmer, but less than a raging boil).
It’s important to sear and brown the pork evenly before adding in any braising liquid, as this helps the slices of pork belly stay intact during the braise.
Patience is key! Give your pork belly ample time to braise on a low and slow fire. It’ll take an hour to cook at the least, maybe even two. But by the end, it’ll be all gelatinous and spoon-tender, and you’ll be glad you resisted the urge to dig into it sooner.
Serve this hot from the steamer, the pork belly glistening from its long braise, topped with a few simple garnishes—cilantro, scallions, sesame seeds, maybe even a couple slices of quick-pickled cucumber. Or get creative with whatever filling you please. I’m sure you’ll get all excited like that little school kid I was, uncovering the wonder of mysteriously filled baos, but coming back to this classic again and again.
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