It has been a staple food among Asians for centuries but, more recently, the humble bao has seen a spike in popularity. Across gourmet capitals, from London and New York to Hong Kong and Los Angeles, it has become a fixture on menus.
The bao is traditionally constructed as a pillow-soft steamed bun encapsulating different types of filling, but its presentation has been turned on its head, with modern versions of either open-faced or slider-style.
Its rise to fame can be traced back to 2004, when David Chang from the renowned Momofuku introduced the pork bun. Thereafter, a slew of dining establishments specialising in bao started popping up all over the world, from Bauhaus in New York City and Take A Bao in Los Angeles, to Bao in London.
Last year, the trend arrived on our shores and F&B establishments have gone to town with it. “The possibilities are endless with the bao,” says Alexys Tjhia, co-founder of Full of Luck Club, a modern and casual Cantonese restaurant, which opened in April and offers a good variety of buns.
Have it stuffed with sweet or savoury filling, from the more classic red bean or lotus paste, to one that’s oozing with gravy such as the kong bak (pork belly). “The buns are meant to soak up the sauces; though a little messy, it’s ok. The world is your bao so be as creative as you want to be,” adds Tjhia. In October last year, The Bao Makers Cafe and Bakery became the pioneer open-faced bao concept eatery in Singapore. Many of its flavours, including chilli crab and salted egg chicken, are created to please local palates.
“We like to think that we have modernised the bao into something more trendy and appealing to younger audiences,” says co-owner Pang Su Yi. “It has also been said that the bao is the Asian burger, and provides a healthier alternative to the traditional Western burger.”
Other eateries such as Sum Yi Tai also offer bao on their menus. “It is a great bar bite,” explains co-owner Tay Eu Yen, who introduced the Asian Kurobuta-Chop Burger to commemorate Sum Yi Tai’s first year anniversary in April 2016.
Another restaurant that has hopped on this bandwagon is Neon Pigeon. At any one time, it has a bao option on its menu. In the past, they’ve offered with umobashi hoisin, and duck with black pepper teriyaki. Currently, soft-shell crab is being served. “They always bestsellers,” reveals co-owner, Michael Macnab.
Hipster food trend or something that is here to stay? The jury is still out. Regardless, it is heartening to see this traditional snack pushed beyond its boundaries, but still remaining utterly satisfying.