Who Took the “Gua” out of “Bao”?

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Everybody, Happy CNY!  Yes, only 2 months after Thanksgiving and 1 month after Christmas comes our very own Annual-eat-ourselves-senseless Day.  And you think you’ve got difficulty shedding pounds before Valentine’s Day (“Honey, your gut has never looked more sexy!”)?  So I thought… in the spirit of Asian festivity and so on, that it’s good timing to honor our newly uprising social icon, one of our most successful cultural ambassador yet to date (and when I say “our” I mean Taiwanese…) – the Brits have Kate Moss and we have this guy.  The infamous, the notorious, the little bite of heaven brought to fame by Momofuku, (drumroll) the~~ Taiwanese GUA BAO!  ……………………….   Oh wait, that’s right.  You don’t recognize him.  Perhaps because he’s mistakenly known as “the pork bun” or just… “bao”.  Phoooph… can you believe it…

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Which clever little man took the “gua” out of “bao” I honestly have no idea… (I’m not even gonna go into “pork bun” like what?  He doesn’t have a real name?  We didn’t call hamburger “beef bun”.  Com’n).  But it would be equally as vague to call baguette “bread” or beer “alcohol”, because bao literally just means “to wrap” or “to hold” which usually describes an array of things with stuffing wrapped inside a white dough.   And let me just say as far as that goes, there are more than you can count with all your fingers plus toes.  So if you were to request in a restaurant saying “may I get a bao”, you’d get something like “bao what?” from someone who may seem to be expressing confusion but is in fact mockery.  So my point is bao is everywhere.  The little fella that’s causing quite the stir is called GUA BAO and is in fact, uniquely a Taiwanese thing.

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Back home, gua bao is a long oval-shaped dough folded in half then steamed, traditionally stuffed with braised pork belly, pickled cabbage and sugary crushed peanuts - one of those masterpiece in both-sweet-and-savory kinda thing.  Ironically, he isn’t the most happening street food in Taiwan as in you might have difficulty spotting him.  But who knew… this little guy pulled a David Hasselhoff – believe there’s always another crowd for him somewhere else in the world – and reinvented himself not just anywhere but in the holy ground of fame-seeking, got a name-change and landed on the menu of one the coolest chefs of this generation… THEN went on to have a restaurant all to his own named Baohaus.  Wow.  Really.  Who knew.  Gua bao is all shiny and new again.  Surprisingly he still remains quite down-to-earth and will gladly sign your T-shirt is relatively easy to make at home.  Invite him to your dinner party next time.  He will be quite the celebrity.

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Servings: 6 gua-bao

The instruction looks dauntingly long only because I’m trying to be as detailed as I can.  It really isn’t difficult at all.  This recipe will give you a perfect, white poofy and chewy gua bao, but I’m going to list the ingredients of the dough in grams because in such small quantity, precision really makes a difference.  The rule of thumb is that the weight of the flour is double the weight of the water.  I like to incorporate the tiniest amount of cream into the wet ingredient but it isn’t conventional so I will call it “optional”.

Instead of the traditional pork-belly, I’m using braised pulled chicken.  Go “figure”.  If you must pork-belly it, I will feature braised pork-belly another time…

Ingredients: adapted from several recipes combined

  • Gua bao dough:
    • 300 gram of bread flour (for best result, use Hong Kong Flour Mill’s bread flour)
    • 140 gram of water + 10 g of heavy cream (or use 150 gram of water if you don’t want to add cream)
    • 1 tsp of instant dry yeast
    • 3 1/2 tbsp of sugar
  • Pulled chicken: (this would yield more than enough for 6 gua-bao)
    • 3 large chicken legs (1 = 1 whole leg including drumstick and thigh)
    • 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
    • 5 slices of ginger
    • 3 star anise
    • 1/2 tbsp of sichuan peppercorn
    • 1/4 tsp of five spice powder
    • 1/4 cup of rice wine
    • 1/2 cup of soy sauce
    • 1/2 cup of water
    • 1 1/2 ~ 2 tsp of rock sugar or cane sugar (depending on the sweetness of the soy sauce)
  • Crushed peanuts:
    • 1/3 cup of roasted peanuts (skin-less), slightly salty is fine
    • 1 1/2 tbsp of raw sugar
  • Chinese pickled cabbage:
  • A few sprigs of cilantro

Make the gua bao: In a stand-mixer with a dough hook or by hand, mix all the ingredients under “gua bao dough” together.  On medium speed, knead the dough until very smooth and elastic, approx 5~6 min.  In the beginning of the mixing process it would look suspiciously dry and you’d be very tempted to add more liquid.  Just wait.  Assess the dough until all the ingredients are completely incorporated.  This should be quite a stiff dough and it SHOULDN’T stick to the bowl or to the counter-top or to your hands.  If it does, add 1 tbsp more of flour.  But if it still seems too dry (wouldn’t come together as a dough), add 1 tsp more of cream.

Leave the dough in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put a kitchen towel on top.  Let it proof under room temperature until doubled in size, approx 1:30 ~ 2 hours depending on the temperature.

Once doubled, scrape the dough out onto the counter-top.  Again,  the dough shouldn’t be sticky so there’s no need to dust any flour.  Punch the air out of the dough and roll it out into a rectangular shape.  Roll it into a log and turn it 90 degrees, then repeat again.  Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces.  Cover them with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 min.  Meanwhile, prepare 12 sheets of 3 1/2″ (9 cm) squares of parchment paper.

Once the dough is rested, shape the dough into an oval shape first with your hands, then roll it out into a long rectangular shape with round tips (3″ x 7″) (8 cm x 17 cm).  We call this the “beef tongue” shape because it resembles a tongue.  Place 1 square of parchment paper on 1 side of the dough and fold the other side over, sandwiching the paper.  Place the gua-bao on another piece of parchment and repeat with the rest.

Place all 6 gua-bao on a steamer with at least 1 1/2″ of space between them.  I like to stamp a flower (or whatever you like) on the top of the gua-bao with red food-dye and the tip of a chopstick.  The trick is to use ONLY enough to “stain” the surface because too much of it would start to run and result in a big blob of red… (if you accidentally applied too much, soak it up with a Q-tip).  But if you are not into food-dyes, then forget this step.

Cover the steamer with plastic wrap and let proof for another 1 hour.  The gua bao should look poofy but not doubled.

Add enough water into the steamer pot and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to medium.  Place the steamer with gua-bao on top and cover.  Steam under medium heat for 10 min.  It is CRUCIAL NOT to let the temperature get TOO high or else the dough would inflate and deflate again, resulting in a very ugly gua-bao.  Open the lid every 3~4 min to ensure this isn’t happening.  Once the gua-baos are steamed, they should be very puffy.  You can make the gua-bao a day ahead and warm it up by steaming it for 3 min when needed.

Make pulled chicken: In a dutch oven, brown the chicken legs skin-side down until most of the fat is rendered out.  Turn them over and brown the meat-side as well.  Leave only 1/2 of the fat in the pot and add the garlic, ginger, star anise, sichuan peppercorn and five spice powder.  Saute until fragrant.  Add the rice wine and soy sauce, let boil for 2 min.  Then add the water and rock sugar.  Simmer for 40 min until the chicken is tender.  Take the chicken out and shred the meat.  Strain the cooking liquid.  Add the chicken meat back into the cooking liquid and cook for another 15 min.  You can also make this a day ahead.  In fact, it gets better overnight.

Make the crushed peanuts: Grind the peanuts and sugar in a mortar or food processor until finely crushed.  If you are using a food processor, be careful NOT to turn the peanuts into peanut butter by over processing.

To assemble: Layer the gua-bao with pulled chicken, cilantro, a little bit of Chinese pickled cabbage and LOTS of sugary crushed peanuts.  And enjoy with saucy fingers.

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33 Comments

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    erin b.

    You make me want to quit my job and cook/bake all day. You are truly the worst. Or best. Same thing.

    • Reply February 7, 2013

      Mandy L.

      No Erin, keep your job. I’m a lost soul… Run… Forget me.

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    Shanna

    Yummmmmm….. this leaves me missing my travels to Asia! Such beautiful work!

  • Reply February 7, 2013

    Tora

    Wow! Pretty! And looks fairly scrumptious if I may say so myself! I have to get a steamer now. It’s not a staple in the norwegian kitchen!

    • Reply February 7, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Tora, you don’t need a bamboo steamer. You could use a large pot with water and a small bowl on the bottom. Place the gua-bao on a plate that would fit into the pot and put the plate on top of the bowl. And steam it that way :)

  • Reply February 8, 2013

    phephe

    soooo gonna have to make these one day. thanks for the non-pork recipe too!

  • Reply March 5, 2013

    Nicole

    I’m in love with your blog, you are my food superhero! I just tried a Boa for the first time a few months ago at BaoHaus and was instantly smitten. Can’t wait to give these a try.

    • Reply March 5, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Nicole, let me know how it turns out!

  • Reply March 11, 2013

    Joshua Huskisson

    Awesome post and awesome photos! I made gua bao last night for the first time. My bao was NOT perfect but luckily was edible. Any chance you could share your recipe and measurements? Any help would be AWESOME!

  • Reply March 11, 2013

    Joshua Huskisson

    I’m a fool. I didn’t read down far enough. Blame the post cooking gin and tonics.

    Do you take the photos for your site?

    • Reply March 11, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Joshua, hahaaaa yeah I was like ?? reading the first comment. Glad you found the recipe! Yeah I took all the photos here. Really happy you like them!

  • Reply March 24, 2013

    Frankie Au

    I made the bao according to the instructions but I used all purpose flour instead of bread flour. They turned really hard and not edible….

    What is the secret to the soft fluffiness?

    My pork was also too salty as I used Japanese soy sauce

    • Reply March 24, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Frankie, without further information it sounds like your yeast didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, which is to produce air in the dough and make it fluffy. There is a few things you can pay attention to:

      1. Please check the expiration date on the yeast (I used active dry yeast) and make sure they are still potent.

      2. Make sure the dough DOUBLES under room temperature for the first proof (this may take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours if the room is cold). When in doubt, you can always warm the water to 110 F and dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 10 min (it should foam up if the yeast is alive), THEN add it to the flour for kneading.

      3. THEN for the second proofing, the dough should grow 50% again in size before steaming.

      Don’t give up! Let me know if you run into any other questions. :)

  • Reply May 1, 2013

    Jenny

    Hi Mandu,

    I was just reading through your instructions and I’m confused as to which step requires a second proofing? Hope to hear from you soon.

    • Reply May 1, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Jenny, once the dough is mixed, you let it proof the first time until doubled (first proofing). Then you shape them into the “bao-shape” and let them proof again for another hour (second proofing). Let me know if there’s any other confusions. sorry about that.

  • Reply June 15, 2013

    Kitchen Butterfly

    Making this right now…starting with the chicken. Will report back though I am convinced, so convinced of its supreme deliciousness! Thank you!

    • Reply June 15, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Good luck!!!

  • Reply June 21, 2013

    paul

    Hi! These look amazing and I have had them before from a cart in NYC. I really want to make them (or something similar) for my wedding reception. I’m doing all the appetizers for my own wedding with a lot of help. Do you know if these can be made ahead and either frozen or refrigerated and still be good? Especially interested if the buns themselves can be made ahead.

    Thanks!

    • Reply June 21, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Paul, of course. Lots of Asian buns are sold frozen. The only thing I would pay attention to is not to keep them in the freezer for too long (up to 1 week), and to reheat, DO NOT use the microwave. Instead, steam them again back to life (straight from the freezer is fine). To serve them, I would keep them warm and moist in the steamer otherwise they would dry out. Good luck!

  • Reply June 23, 2013

    Kitchen Butterfly

    This was dinner last night. And a hugeeeeeeee hit.

    Superb – the chicken is so flavourful and so easy to make – I doubled it! And used some to craft nikuman :-). We all – children included, enjoyed it.

    • Reply June 23, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Did you have success with the bun? Somebody tried it before (earlier comment) and didn’t work so I’m curious.

  • Reply July 16, 2013

    Zoe S.

    I made this tonight for dinner and it was a huge hit. The buns came out fluffy and delicious. The only change I made was after shredding the chicken, I added a little brown sugar and a splash more rice wine vinegar. Not only was it fun to make, but it was also such a delicious dish! I cant wait to make it again! Thanks for the recipe!

  • Reply August 13, 2013

    Scout

    Thanks for the recipe and detailed instructions! Very rarely does a online recipe works on the first try for me. The bao came out perfectly. The chicken was delicious; I garnished with pickled cucumbers and carrots. This recipe is definitely a keeper.

  • Reply December 6, 2013

    pat

    hi mandy,

    tried the recipe yesterday… mine turned out… edible, it wasnt as fluffy as i wouldve imagined and another thing is that the colour of my buns its not as white as yours, was it because of the flour or maybe the cream (i used water) I tried looking up and some people use vinegar to whitened up. do u know if this might work?

    cheers

    • Reply December 6, 2013

      Mandy L.

      Pat, I find a lot of the times when yeast doughs turn up to be “not fluffy”, is because it didn’t proof enough. The yeast didn’t have enough time, especially in cold weather, to generate enough air bubbles inside the dough. The amount of yeast in this recipe is relatively low and therefore you really need to give it enough time and make sure the dough has doubled fully the first time, and then proof again for the second time (to expand at least another 50 %).

      The color of the dough probably has to do with the type of flours used. If using unbleached bread flour, the bun could be slightly yellow or cream-colored. I think it’s fine. I have never used vinegar to whiten the dough up before.

      let me know if it works!

  • Reply February 3, 2014

    Roxanne

    I’m making these right now, and am on the first proof — it’s not rising well despite fresh yeast and a 75 degree room. I think perhaps I should have added the yeast and some of the sugar to the liquid before adding the flour? I’m seeing tiny granules swelling in the dough now, after about an hour.

  • Reply February 3, 2014

    Roxanne

    I take it back! They came out beautifully! My husband just gobbled three with dinner! Non-artsy photos here as evidence: http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=40886560@N00&q=Gua%20bao

    • Reply February 3, 2014

      Roxanne

      Also, I didn’t have bread flour so I just used all purpose (Gold Medal organic). I followed the recipe other than that, though I rushed the rest (only 5 min) and the second proof/rise ( maybe 30 min in a warm kitchen) as I had hungry toddlers on a schedule.
      They were still nicely fluffy with a nicely chewy bite.

      • Reply February 3, 2014

        Mandy L.

        Roxanne, good job! I’ve never used fresh yeast before… but I’m glad they worked out. Your babies are ridiculously cute….

        • Reply February 3, 2014

          Roxanne

          Ah, thanks! I didn’t mean truly fresh yeast — sorry for misspeaking. I just meant my dried yeast wasn’t expired or anything. I used a teaspoon from a packet of regular ol’ Fleischman’s (sp?) from the grocery store.

  • Reply March 6, 2014

    Albert

    I stumbled upon your blog from a link by David Lebovitz! Beautiful work and I love the bite in your writing. You write really well in both languages!

    I think a lot of people had problems with the dough because they didn’t let it rise/proof long enough. But also a lot of the recipes for this type of bun would add less gluten to cut the chewiness (like rice flour or 澄粉) and also adding lard to the dough can tenderize it. Some even add a touch of baking powder. The recipe you used is basically like a sweet 饅頭 recipe, which has more chew.

    • ALBERT: Actually Taiwanese-style gua-bao is supposed to have a chew to it, but softer and more pliable than man-tou. I think perhaps you’re coming from a more Cantonese perspective, as deng-fen isn’t used at all in Taiwanese cooking?

      • Reply March 11, 2014

        Albert

        You might be right – I am not sure what is the true authentic bun! I just remembered the gua bao I had from this famous cart in Taipei called 藍家, and it was very tender and fluffy. But who’s to say that is the most authentic. I actually grew up in Taiwan but have been in the US for the last 2 decades. I saw the recipe using 澄粉 from a book I bought from Taiwan. But the book featured many traditional rice cakes (like daikon cake, taro cake, Taiwanese bowl cake 碗粿, etc.) that mixed in a little other starch like sweet potato flour, corn flour, etc. to modify the texture, as the modern palate is so accustomed to commercialized products. These days the commercial products have so much additives like the various diglycerides as dough enhancers, and I don’t care as much now if I can’t create the same kind of texture at home.

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