B is for buns: bánh bao

Yum!Bánh bao is the Vietnamese version of the fluffy, steamed filled bun so popular in Asian cultures (and Western ones too!) A fresh steamed bun is a delight. I made these ones a few weeks ago.

ready to eat

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.Viet Street Food

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.andrea's books

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.

I had no milk, so I used soy milk. I quartered the recipe and made only four, because I wasn’t sure how the soy milk would affect the flavour. in the steamer

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.need more practice

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.”







About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
This entry was posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Viet Nam and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to B is for buns: bánh bao

  1. Thanks for sharing those bun-moments! They brought back culinary memories of travelling through Asia. Love your steamer assembly! It has a touch of steam noir sci-fi 🙂 And so exciting to suddenly have the touch of Vietnam appearing in different layers: your blog, then the blue/xanh-translation, and now i happened to read a story with Vietnam connection, didn’t know the author before: Aliette de Bodard. do you know her from reading or from the web? i blogged a reading note: http://virtual-notes.blogspot.de/2014/06/reading-shakespeare-1984-and-nebula.html
    Cheers from Germany~

    • Chris says:

      So it’s turning out to be quite true that everything is connected. Thanks for sharing the reading note…as you know, I passed it on. Aliette is a great writer. Steam noir sci-fi…brilliant! Love it.

  2. Susi Lovell says:

    “Steam noir sci-fi” – I like that! This looks yummy. I’m a lousy cook and have little patience for complicated recipes but like reading about them!

  3. Must try these. I bought myself a cheap plastic steamer some time ago and am surprised how much I use it for cooking vegetables. It would be idea for making these and they look as if they could be a welcome addition to a meal you didn’t want to eat with potatoes, rice or pasta.

    • Chris says:

      It would probably work quite well. They only take 15 minutes to cook (unless they’re giant), and yes, they can go with a meal too. They’re quite bready. Good for travelling too!

  4. Thanks, Chris. Lovely read. I realize I’m going to become very hungry following your blog posts 😉

  5. Rose Hunter says:

    Ha! Someone already said it but I love that too Dorothee – “steam noir sci-fi” … These look delicious. It’s almost breakfast time here. Wish you could courier me a couple….

    • Chris says:

      Rose, I wish I could! Like I just replied to Margrét in another comment on another post, we’ll have to get together for coffee somewhere sometime. So maybe buns too. Coffee and buns.

  6. Hehe:, i just realized i mixed up “steam punk” and “film noir” … plus there actually is a German graphic novel called “Steam Noir”, to add to the mixing: https://www.cross-cult.de/science-fiction-titeldetails/items/comic-steam-noir-das-kupferherz-1.html

    • Chris says:

      I love the idea of steam noir. And steam noir sci-fi is even better! It only makes sense to have these genres. And I can’t say I’m surprised that someone’s already written a graphic steam noir. Thanks for sharing the link.

  7. Pingback: E is for Eggs | Chris Galvin

  8. Steffi says:

    I love dumplings so much and i am in hue right now, can you Tell ne where exactly to get your Deep Fried ones?
    Or just all the places you know where streetfood Vendors or Restaurants sell them?
    Hope to hear from you!

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s