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What is bao and how does it differ from dumplings

When it comes to Asian street food, dumplings have always taken the top spot. However, in recent times, bao buns are gaining popularity. 

Originally eaten at breakfast, the fluffy, versatile, and endlessly fun bao buns have become the #1 grab-and-go food relished in many Southeast Asian countries. 

If you happen to be curious as to how to make one or just want to learn more about baos, this discussion is for you.

What is bao?

A bao bun, also known as bao, baozi, steamed bun, pau, and humbow, is a sought-after main course meal originating from Northern China. You can find bao buns in restaurants across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, East Asia, and Chinatown around the world. 

Filled traditionally with pork, these buns are round, soft, and smooth and are steamed in bamboo baskets. This gives them a subtle wooden scent.
There are many variations of bao buns. Some have meat fillings, while others are filled with seafood or vegetables. 

The most common types of bao buns are:

  1. Tangbaozi – soup filled baozi eaten with a straw
  2. Cha Siu bao – filled with barbecue-flavored pork
  3. Doushabao – filled sweet bean paste bao bun
  4. Gua bao – open-faced bao made with flat steamed dough
  5. Tandoori baozi – filled with lamb, potatoes, and spices
  6. Xiaolongbao – small, meat-filled baozi containing a juicy broth

What does bao taste like?

The taste of Chinese bao buns depends on the filling inside them. Most fillings are savory and mildly sweet. There are so many different ways to make bao buns that the bao taste is rarely ever consistent. You can add mushrooms, pork, chicken, beef, and even chocolate for a sweet kick!

Without any fillings, bao buns are like a blank canvas. Bao buns without any filling are called “mantou.” They have a chewy texture and smell and taste like fresh bread. 

Plain bao buns are usually served as a side dish with stewed eggplant, dongpo pork, braised tofu, and a variety of other saucy dishes.

How is bao made?

Bao buns are made from a mixture of all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, rice vinegar, milk powder, lukewarm water, and cooking oil. Dried yeast is also used to level the buns and make them soft and smooth. 

A lot of patience is required to get perfectly smooth bao buns. Below is an easy recipe to make bao buns at home from scratch:

Ingredients:
• 550 grams all-purpose flour
• 1 ½ tablespoon caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon dried yeast
• 50 ml milk
• 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
• 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• Lukewarm water
• Chopsticks

Instructions:
1. Mix the flour, caster sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a cup, dissolve yeast in a pinch of sugar and 1 tablespoon of lukewarm water. Add the liquid to the mixing bowl. Pour in sunflower oil, rice vinegar, and 200 ml of lukewarm water. Mix into a dough and knead it for 10 to 15 minutes. 

2. Next, put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size. Then tip out the dough on a clean, flat surface and flatten it with your hands. Sprinkle baking powder and knead for 5 minutes. 

3. Roll the dough into a flat sausage shape and then cut thick pieces of 3 cm. Roll each piece into a ball in the palm of your hand and leave it to rest for 2 to 4 minutes. Use a rolling pan to flat out each ball into a 3 to 4 mm thick oval shape. 

4. Rub the surface of the oval shape with some oil. Place an oiled chopstick in the center of the oval, fold the dough over the chopstick and then pull the chopstick out. Transfer the buns to a baking tray lined with parchment paper, cover with a clean towel, and put the tray in a warm place for 1 ½ hour. 

5. Finally, heat a large steamer over medium-high heat. Steam the buns for 8 minutes or until puffed up. Serve warm.

What is the difference between bao and dumplings?

• Dumplings are boiled or pan-fried, whereas bao buns are steamed.
• Dumplings are smaller in size than bao buns.
• Bao buns are made from fermented yeast dough, whereas the dough used to make dumplings is unfermented. 
• Bao dough requires more rise time and is folded differently.

List of bao recipes

Here is a list of bao recipes for you to enjoy once you master the art of creating smooth and soft bao buns at home:

  1. Banh Bao (Vietnamese Steamed Pork Buns)
  2. Chicken Bao
  3. Char Sui Bao (Steamed Pork Buns)
  4. Spicy Cauliflower Bao Buns
  5. Vegan Tofu Bao Buns with Pickled Vegetables

The bottom line

Due to its rise in popularity, many local eateries are now adding interesting variations of bao buns to their menus. 

And although creating the perfect bao bun takes up to four hours, the effort is totally worth it! Now that you know what bao is, it’s time for you to create some fun recipes in your kitchen right away!

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