Quite simply, Char siu bao are the best street food ever. These steamed, yeasted dumplings filled with sticky barbecued pork may have started life in the heat of Southern China, but they’ve migrated to every corner of the country (and much of Asia and the rest of the world). In Beijing and Shanghai, there are whole shops devoted to them, not least because they make a fantastic warmer in the cold winters. People argue about the finer points of whose version is best.
None of this is a secret, but there are two surprises. The first is that bao are relatively easy to make, if you’re used to baking: you mostly use standard bread-making techniques, the difference coming only at the end when you use a steamer instead of an oven (there are baked versions of bao, but the steamed ones are far more common). The second is that they’re as good a dish to make at home as they are to eat on the street or in a dim sum joint: they freeze wonderfully and 20 seconds in a microwave will get a bao from fridge temperature to a delicious and warming snack.
A few subtleties before you start:
- You will need a steamer, either purpose-built or jury-rigged. The ideal is to have one or two Chinese bamboo steamers set over a wok with a couple of centimetres of boiling water (they stack). But you can use anything you like that gets steam flowing around your bao without them ending up in a pool of hot water.
- The bao you buy off the street in China or in dim sum joints are preternaturally white. That’s because they’re made from highly bleached flour (if you’re in a Chinese shop, ask for “Hong Kong flour”). Personally, I’m not bothered.
- Tracts have been written on the best way to achieve maximum fluffiness of the bun. I’ve still got room from improvement here: when lockdown ends, I’ll be trying some different types of flour and technical variations on when to add the baking powder, whether to do a second prove, etc. For now, I’m going with a 5:1 mix of strong white bread flour to cornflour (it’s what I’ve got). Ideally, use a white flour with a low protein content.
- The filling given here is an example. Use your favourite Chinese flavourings: bean pastes, oyster sauce, whatever; add chili if want it spicy. The choice is yours.
- Choose your favourite spelling: Char siu vs Char siew vs chāshāo. And choose your favourite recipe for making it: I’ve given you one below.
- 8g dried yeast
- 50g sugar
- 180g warm water (around 40℃)
- 20g oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
- 300g white flour
- 60g cornflour
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- Preheat oven to 50℃ (you’ll be using it to prove the dough).
- Combine water, sugar and yeast; stir well to dissolve; leave for 10 minutes or so
- Combine flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder and mix thoroughly
- Once your wet mixture is nicely frothy, add it to the dry mixture and add the oil. Mix thoroughly into a ball and then knead for around 5-10 minutes – you’ve kneaded it enough when the dough is very elastic and bounces back nicely when you stretch or punch it.
- Put the dough into a large bowl with a damp tea towel over it. SWITCH OFF THE OVEN and put it in. Leave the dough to to rise for around 60-90 minutes. I can never figure out what people mean when they say “until it’s doubled in size”: I leave the dough until it’s mostly filled the bowl.
You’ll have time to make your filling while the dough is being left to rise.
- 200g Char siu (see below for recipe)
- 90g red onion or banana shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 spring onions
- 1 tbs oil (I used sunflower oil, any fairly neutral oil will work)
- 1 tbs hoisin sauce
- 1 tbs dark soya sauce
- Chop the Char siu very finely (around 3mm dice would be ideal). Chop the onion, garlic and spring onions very finely also.
- Heat oil in your wok to high heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic, stir-fry for a couple of minutes
- Add spring onions, stir fry until onions are transparent
- Add Char siu, hoisin sance and dark soya sauce, mix thoroughly, then turn the heat down and stir fry for a minute or two until everything is combined and fragrant.
- Remove from heat and let cool while your dough is rising. If you’re going to use the same wok for steaming, you’ll now need to decant the filling to another bowl and wash up the wok.
- Cut twelve squares of greaseproof paper, around 8cm square.
- Take the dough out of its bowl and divide into twelve portions, as evenly as you can manage (the easiest way to get them even is to roll the dough into a cylinder, chop it into half, chop each half in half and then each remaining piece into three).
- With a floured rolling pin on floured surface, roll a portion of dough out into a flat disc, around 12cm in diameter.
- Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle (don’t touch it with your fingers or you’ll then stain the dough)
- Pinch up the dough into pleats, ensuring at each stage that the filling isn’t being allowed to drop out. You end up with a shape a bit like the onion dome on a Russian church.
- Put the completed dumpling on a square of greaseproof paper and transfer it to your steamer.
- Repeat for the remaining bao. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to do this in several batches.
- Steam the bao for around 12-15 minutes until fluffy and cooked through.
Making your own Char Siu
Char siu is barbecued, marinated pork. The first thing you have to decide is what pork to buy. My preferred cut is shoulder, which has some fat in it but not too much. Fillet (aka tenderloin) or loin is OK, but has so little fat content that it tends to dry out. Belly is the opposite: your char siu will be beautifully soft but you may find it rather fatty.
There are a million different recipes for the marinade. They pretty much all involve soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, a sweetener (sugar / honey / hoisin sauce) and something to make it sour (vinegar / tomato puree). Shaoxing rice wine is a popular addition. Quantities can vary wildly according to taste.
The best suggestion I’ve found for simulating the way the Chinese make char siu comes from Woks of life: set your oven to its highest setting (probably 250℃ fan) and roast your meat on a grid over water. I’ve gone for a simplified version of what they do.
By tradition, char siu is red. In practise, this is typically achieved by using red food colouring. Personally, I can’t be bothered, so my char siu is brown.
- Pork shoulder – 1 kg
- Garlic – 3 clove, crushed
- Five spice powder – ½ tsp
- Dark soya sauce – 1 tbs
- Hoisin sauce – 1 tbs
- Shaoxing rice wine – 1 tbs
- Tomato puree – 1 tbs
- Cut the pork into large strips (around 6-8 cm in diameter). If you’re using tenderloin, that’s pretty much the width of the whole thing, so just cut it in half.
- Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl big enough to hold the pork, dunk the pork into the marinade and make sure it’s all properly coated, cover and leave overnight.
- Preheat oven to 250℃, with an oven shelf near the top.
- Use a deep oven dish half-filled with water. Place a grid over the oven dish, then put the pork on the grid.
- Put the whole lot into the oven and roast for around 40 minutes. You want the pork to be cooked through, but not dry. You may want to baste the pork with any remaining marinade every 10 minutes or so.
The quantities given are for 1 kg of pork, which is over three times what you’ll need for one batch of bao. The idea is that you’re going to eat some freshly cooked for a main meal, and then use the leftovers for bao a day or so later, freezing any you have left after that.