August 25 2021

Bao Buns: after 1721 years waiting in the wings, their moment in the spotlight has finally arrived.

For the past six or seven years, Bao Buns – those seductive, fluffy little pillows of steamed, yeasty delight filled with all manner of tantalising, deeply umami fillings – have dominated the fashionable foodie’s consciousness.

From hundreds of super-hip, Bao-dedicated eateries all the way down to most supermarket shelves (“now you can try the on-trend Chinese snack in your own kitchen!”) by way of multiple pop-up street food ventures or meal kits containing a bag of premixed flour, yeast and sugar alongside a sachet of barbecue sauce and a splash of pickling vinegar at a super-inflated price, nationwide Bao mania has reached a market saturation point that makes it clear that, this time next year, Bao Buns will be “last year” enough for KFC to introduce them to the menu.

The thing is, since Bao Buns were first made in China circa 300BC, I didn’t know they’d ever gone out of fashion.

I’m not of Asian heritage, but I was born and grew up just a stone’s throw away from Liverpool’s Chinatown, where a fully-laden Bao Bun was, in my very early days, a little something piquant to nibble on while we were waiting for our order to be cooked. This was circa 1968, before the Chinese takeaway was convenient, let alone ubiquitous; if we wanted Chinese food ‘to go’, we’d have to take our own bowls and containers to the restaurant with us, and sit on rickety little ex-restaurant chairs adjacent to a scarily hot kitchen while scarily hot chefs (probably) laughed at our Very British Order of Chow Mein, Sweet and Sour Vegetables and Special Fried Rice for 4 (“can we have chips too?” “We no do chips! This is Chinatown!”).

I remember gazing, partly in horror (I was bought up vegetarian) and partly in yearning-to-try fascination, at the whole, fluorescent red roast ducks that hung by their feet over the wok station, and watching in awe as the chefs effortlessly turned massive bowls of whole red peppers, onions and daikon into shreds in seconds. Our Bao Buns, packed with unctuous fatty globules in a thick, smoky sauce, would turn up unbidden while dad and I waited, and I watched. “What’s in it, dad?” “Probably pork, so don’t tell your mum.”

In the 1980s, Bao Buns were late night post-club snacks (3 for £1 from the back of the Yuet Ben) to eat while we waited in the taxi cab queue before giving up on a ride and tottering home on foot, high heels in hand, sticky sauce all over our clothes. In the 1990s, they were the familiar old friends that kept me sitting comfortably throughout a dim sum extravaganza at New York’s legendary Jing Fong, where the jellyfish, chicken claws and turnip cake were as scary as the prospect of David Bowie (allegedly a Jing Fong regular) taking a seat at the table next to ours (he didn’t.)

My Bao Bun friendship rolled right across the globe with me, taking in tofu Baos at Berlin’s Quà Phê, a satay version at Indochine in LA, and a really surreal Bao that arrived as a side dish, cold and naked, in a Swiss restaurant where my order was lost in translation. For decades, I’ve ordered them out at any and every opportunity and I make my own, at home, on a regular basis (they’re really, really easy to make; see pic for my most recent attempt.) But just yesterday…

Email from a fast food restaurant PR: “Hey Melissa, you’re probably not familiar with the Bao Bun – so let me be the first to introduce you to the new UK food revolution that’s guaranteed to Bao WOW your world!”

Bao Buns: after 1721 years waiting in the wings, their moment in the spotlight has finally arrived.

This feature first appeared in The Bath Magazine newsletter

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