Little balls of dumpling dough stuffed full with barbecue-flavoured cha siu pork. They're small, they're savoury, they're moreish – they're Chinese pork buns, and they've been around forever.
In Chinese they're known as cha siu (pork) bao (bun). They come both steamed and baked versions – and while the jury is still out as to which taste the best, the steamed buns from Mamasan Bondi get our vote this time.
Steamed or baked buns?
The traditional steamed BBQ pork bun is light in colour and soft in texture, contrasting with the intense flavour of the filling. The baked kind are served up golden brown and glazed, so they're chewier and more bready.
We love the softness of Mamasan's steamed buns. The squishy case perfectly complements the umami pork filling, making each mouthful an exciting medley.
Whether you're Team Baked or Team Steamed, the cha siu pork filling is the star of the show: a signature mix of savoury and sweet from slow-cooked pork marinated in soy sauce, hoisin, sticky honey and Chinese five-spice. When the meat is sliced, it's tender and juicy and falls apart at the slightest touch – perfect wrapped up in a pillowy bun.
Dim sum delights
You'd normally see the BBQ pork buns served during yum cha – a traditional afternoon tea-style meal where piles of steamed dim sum treats are washed down with Chinese tea.
In Australia, pork buns also appear on many Chinese menus. Grabbing one or two makes an ideal lunchtime snack, especially if you're on the move.
A bit of bao history
He may not be well known here in Australia, but Zhuge Liang was a fearsome Chinese warrior, leader and officer in 189 CE. When not on the battlefield, he was an inventor too. Among his blueprints of wheelbarrows, hot air balloons and crossbows nestles his top accomplishment – the pork bun. He fed his troops with a larger version of what we know and love today, as they were easy to carry around and packed with protein.
Versions of BBQ pork buns are available all over the world, with twists on the classic. In Hawaii, they're called Manapua – meaning 'delicious pork thing'. If there was one way to describe cha siu bao, that'd be it. The Manapua is larger than its Chinese cousin, and is usually steamed rather than baked.