Take a Bao

On a recent visit to Miami, Joanne and I went to one of our favorite places, a Korean barbecue called THE DRUNKEN DRAGON, located behind an anonymous storefront in a strip mall, next door to a Subway sandwich shop.

The sign out front simply says MARKET. Pass through the door, however, and you’ll be seduced by the gorgeous interior and sophisticated menu.

When we selected our starters, I ordered the BAO BUNS. Joanne commented that I order them at every Asian restaurant we visit. I’d never really thought about it, but she was right. I LOVE BAO BUNS in all their forms……CHINESE (the original) and the Thai iteration called the Banh Bao. There’s the Korean version, too, which often includes beef and kimchi. Bao buns come in different forms, too – stuffed, folded, and wrapped around all manner of fillings, from minced pork and beef to shellfish and sweets. Usually they’re steamed, but are occasionally stuffed and deep fried.

So instead of posting about a particular restaurant, I thought it might be fun to explore the world of BAO BUNS and DUMPLINGS in all of the variations that I’ve come across.

Pork seems to be the “go-to” filling – barbecued, pulled, char siu and pork belly. I like ‘em all, but am partial to the char siu, which means “burned” (they’re not), and amped up with a little honey and 5-spice powder.

But as I have discovered over the years, there are a whole bunch of whimsical and witty versions. At the DRUNKEN DRAGON, for example, the filling was braised beef with dollop of kimchi and a piece of deep fried chicken skin.

Some places invite people to share and others promote building your own.

My definition of the category is pretty broad. I include POTSTICKERS …BEGGAR’S PURSES…MANTOU (just for dipping)…and BAZOI (most always stuffed with barbecued minced chicken or pork), as well as anything else that vaguely resembles some sort of dumpling.

An example of that was in Shanghai at the Ruinjin Guest House where we were presented with little bundles of marinated vegetables wrapped in Taro. Check out the image.

Soft shell crabs, fried chicken, both provided a nice crunch against the steamed dumplings. Barbecued short ribs at Jean Georges restaurant in New York were all a surprise and a delight.

Rock star chefs at other rock star restaurants have also gotten in on the act. See what Jose Andres at BAZAAR does with pork belly, and HAKKASAN in London, as well as a TANUKI outpost from Moscow.

And check out the green tea ice cream dessert bao bun loaded with anti-oxidants from one of Hong Kong’s hottest restaurants – a place called, appropriately enough, LITTLE BAO…. Also the AMERICAN BAO BURGERS.

But here’s the thing: BAO BUNS are essentially street food. Sold from stalls in the gritty streets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and throughout Asia, and now the western world, especially New York and London.

So bao buns have become the poster child for “democratic” pan-Asian street food. They’re served in the poorest neighborhoods throughout Asia – and at some of the fanciest Asian restaurants that I’ve ever set foot in.

Example: The flagship restaurant at the newly opened PENINSULA HOTEL in Paris, LILI, offers a bao bun with caviar….(not very good, actually). THE DORCHESTER in London houses the celebrity-driven restaurant, China Tang, where George Clooney, Kate Moss, Lindsey Lohan and, on the night that we were there Tom Cruise, dine on all manner of beautiful buns, like the assortment of unusual shapes and exotic fillings we enjoyed on a banana leaf.

Even PARASOLE is in on the act, with bao bun spoons served “butler style” at THE LIVING ROOM next to MANNY’S, as well as CHINO LATINO’S build ‘em yourself buns and GOOD EARTH’S hoisin barbecued chicken version.

But here comes some fun stuff – the strangest and tastiest examples of the weirdest buns I’ve ever had. Look at the little purple flowers. Called Cho Muang, they’re Thai and are filled with minced chicken. Both illustrated versions are served at very upscale restaurants – PATARA in London and ARUN’S in Chicago.

Next is a bacon and fried egg example. I guess you’d call it a BREAKFAST BAO…..or the runny egg and pineapple BAO.

And how cute is this…Baby chicks?

Or the buttermilk southern fried chicken bao with mayo?….don’t think so. (Well, maybe after a late night on the town.)

But SMOKED DUCK and PEANUT BUTTER ?……HMM !!!! (Is Elvis in the house?)

And lastly the S’MORES BAO BUN: graham crackers, marshmallows and melted chocolate…..inspired by girl scouts? Or was it the campfire girls?



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