From Chinese bāozi and Pinoy siopao to Hawaiian manapua and the Thai version, salapao, to the huge variety of stuffed steamed and baked buns at my local favourite Hong Kong pastry shop, I like them all. I have fond memories of hot bánh bao straight from the steamer on chilly, drizzly days in Hà Nội. Some were filled with xá xíu, (Vietnamese version of char siu BBQ pork), while others had chicken or vegetarian fillings. The vendor would open her glass case or bamboo steamer and reach into the clouds of steam to pull out some buns. I’d close my eyes, sink my teeth into one, and forget how cold I was.
In Huế, which is home when I’m in Viet Nam, my favourite bánh bao is not steamed but deep-fried (chiên), so we call them bánh bao chiên. I’d never seen them anywhere else until I picked up a copy of Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl. There they were in several lovely photos! My beloved fried buns from Huế! Except they weren’t from Huế, but rather Hà Nội. The book features a recipe (photo above) and a vignette about a couple who run a bánh bao chiên stall near their home. While the buns in Vietnamese Street Food look two-bite-sized, the fried buns my husband and I buy in Huế are almost as big as softballs. I haven’t tried Tracey’s recipe yet, but it’s on the to-do list.
I first tried making steamed buns over twenty years ago, using the Chinese yeast-based recipe for “cha shao dumplings” from Deh-Ta Hsiung‘s Chinese Regional Cooking (Macdonald Educational, London, 1979). They were good, but for some reason, I never made them again. They weren’t that difficult to make, but they were time-consuming. The instructions for shaping them, while clear, didn’t go into much detail, so my creations lacked the lovely pleated look that gives them the finishing touch.
Here’s a very short clip from Maomao Mom demonstrating how to fill and pleat them:
A few years ago, Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavours joined my cookbook collection. As soon as it arrived in my home, I did what I always do with cookbooks; I read it from cover to cover and bookmarked all the recipes I wanted to try first. Her recipe for bánh bao filled with pork and vegetables caught my eye, because it called for baking powder instead of yeast for the leavening. Baking powder! No proofing and raising and punching the dough down before stuffing them, followed by another stint of raising. Hm, I thought, steamed baking powder biscuits. Makes sense. But I didn’t get around to it right away because I’d marked so many other recipes. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided it was time, gathered the ingredients and got started.
Here’s my crazy steamer assembly, built out of the workhorse half of a sticky rice steamer to boil the water, paired with an old mismatched steamer tray that just happens to fit perfectly, topped with a lid from something else that also happens to fit perfectly. It can hold about four softball-sized buns at a time.
Bánh bao are perfect for breakfast and for snacks. As Andrea pointed out to me when I mentioned I’d made them, “All the major food groups are include in a banh bao.” How true! Vegetables, protein, grains, dairy . . . ok, so there aren’t any fruits in these ones, but I can make some baked pineapple buns to take care of that.
The filling was wonderful and the dough tasted great, but the buns came out a little less fluffy than I expected. I wasn’t sure why, so I had to experiment to find out. This time I used milk as called for, but my second try had the same results. Perhaps it’s the flour I used.
I plan to try making them with yeast, too. Andrea offers a recipe for the traditional yeast-based dough in her book Asian Dumplings, along with recipes for several different fillings, including two sweet ones. I have my eye on a few of those.
This was my very first one. I’m getting better, but as you can see, I need to keep practicing my pleating technique. Perhaps I need to watch the video (above) of Maomao Mom working her magic a few more times.
Here’s a brief documentary film, Bánh Bao Đây, about Hòa, an itinerant bánh bao seller in Huế (2012):
This is my second post for the A to Z blog challenge. Stay tuned for C, and please check out the other participants’ blogs too:
Margrét Helgadottir – Growing up as a cross-cultural kid
Jo Thomas – Mousie the stuffed mouse tours Thurnscoe, South Yorkshire
Dorothee Lang – Playing with language
Rose Hunter – Place/Memory
Jane Hammons – Random topics
Fred Osuna – “My South.”