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How to make the perfect gua bao, Taiwanese steamed buns

These Taiwanese steamed buns should be smooth, fluffy and — traditionally — filled with pork.

By Erchen Chang
Published 1 Dec 2021, 15:00 GMT, Updated 6 Dec 2021, 10:37 GMT
Braised pork belly bao buns with crushed peanuts.

Braised pork belly bao buns with crushed peanuts.

Photograph by Stock Food

The tradition 

‘Gua bao’ is a Taiwanese phrase that translates as ‘cut bun’. When steamed and filled, each bun symbolises a full purse, so businesses in Taiwan usually celebrate the end of the lunar year with platters of gua bao as a way to usher in prosperity for the coming year.

The filling 

Traditionally, gua bao are filled with slow-braised pork, fermented mustard greens, coriander and ground peanuts — the only real option is whether you go for fatty or lean meat. However, other fillings, such as pork tongue or fried chicken, are becoming more common.

The rolling 

For a smooth-surfaced bao, wet your palm and roll the dough into balls, adding pressure to get the air out — keep rolling until perfectly round. Flatten the dough balls with your palm before using a rolling pin to create an oval shape. Cover with greaseproof paper to stop them from drying out.

The flour 

You can use plain flour, but the bao will turn out slightly denser or bouncier, and won’t be as white as those made using Chinese low-protein flour. Specialist Asian supermarkets sell bao flour; the best has a protein level of 7-8%. Alternatively, try a mix of plain flour and cake flour.

The proving 

Proving time for the dough varies from winter to summer (on a hot day, it will prove much quicker). The dough has had enough proving time when it’s risen and almost doubled in size; it shouldn’t stick to your finger when poked and should stay indented rather than bouncing back.

The steaming 

Both bamboo and metal steamers work, but bamboo gathers less condensation. With metal, water can drip onto the bao, resulting in a less smooth surface. Either way, when the cooking time is up, leave the lid slightly ajar to let the steam out slowly, so the bao don’t deflate quickly. 

RECIPE: Erchen Chang’s gua bao

In Taiwan, gua bao is normally a street food, with the classic filling being slow braised pork, fermented mustard greens, coriander and peanut powder. You can fill these with almost anything you like though, as long as it’s not a big slab of something that can’t be bitten off easily.

Makes: around 20
Takes: 20 mins, plus at least 1 hr 30 mins resting time

Ingredients
500g Chinese low-protein flour (around 7.5% protein) or plain flour, plus extra for the surface
2 tsp dried yeast
145ml milk
2 pinches salt
50g sugar
15ml vegetable oil, plus extra for brushing

Method
1. 
Mix the flour, yeast and 145ml warm water together in a bowl. Cover and leave for at least 30 mins in a warm place until doubled in size. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until it all comes together as one.
2. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 mins (it will be sticky, but will gradually become more elastic). Measure the dough into 40g pieces. Give each piece a strong knead and roll into tight balls. Keep covered to prevent them drying out.
3. Flatten the balls of dough with the palm of your hand, then use a rolling pin to roll each one into an oval shape around 5-6mm thick. Brush one side of each piece with vegetable oil.
4. Fold each oval piece over onto itself and press down gently to form a clam shell shape. Set on greaseproof paper in a warm, but not hot, bamboo steamer (or in whatever you normally use to steam vegetables) and leave to rest for 15-20 mins in a warm place to rise again.
5. Steam for 15 mins on a medium-high heat. Once ready, remove the buns from the steamer and serve with whatever fillings you like. To store for later, leave to rest at room temperature until the steam is fully evaporated and the buns are fully cooled, then keep in the fridge for 5-7 days or freeze for up to a month.

Erchen Chang is co-founder and creative director of BAO

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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