Pork Cheek Hum Bao

Steamed buns or bao are a significant staple in Chinese cuisine. Some authorities date the origin of steamed bao all the way back to the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.) in China, although others suggest bao is a few centuries more recent than that. Bao have relatives in various Asian countries, including Korean mandu, Malaysian pau, Japanese nikuman, and Filipino siopao.

Bao is made of flour, water, and yeast, just like any other bread. The difference is, the dough is steamed, not baked, turning it into a warm, plump bun. Bao dough is typically wrapped around a filling before steaming. Sometimes, bao is served without filling, as a sop for sauces. This is often called mantou, although some authorities define these terms differently. The plain buns are sometimes served with Peking duck, though thin pancakes are more common. In northern China, the unstuffed buns are actually as common as rice, regarded “more or less as the Westerner regards bread,” according to the late Chinese food authority Kenneth Lo.

In terms of fillings, there are endless regional variation and creative possibilities. There are even medicinal versions, such as the fu ling baozi that author Ken Hom once found in an herbal market in Chengdu—its dough is risen with a fungus found near pine trees rather than with yeast. Vastly more common is what Lo described as “arguably the most famous filled bun ever,” which is steamed char siu bao, stuffed with barbecued pork. We include steamed bun recipes ranging from traditional pork-filled bao to more unusual variations, including mantou with fruit purees and pumpernickel bao stuffed with pastrami (we call this variation Reu-Bao).

The slightly sweet bao dough is forgiving, easy to put together, and extremely versatile. You can transform the dough into many different shapes, from a simple steamed mantou to a more elaborate knotted hua juan (or “flower bun”) and stuffed buns, such as hum bao that is steamed with the seam side up rather than seam side down like traditional bao. While the actual buns are petite, they should be generously plump, not deflated from oversteaming. The crust should be almost invisibly ultrathin and shiny from the gelatinized starch. The crumb should be tender, with a delicately chewy texture that’s soft enough to be easily pulled apart.

Visit our recipe library for the Pork Cheek Hum Bao recipe from Modernist Bread.