My brother Eric turns 26 this year! While in some ways I still think of him as a kid who can’t possibly be old enough to hold down a full-time job, travel alone, or date(!), he’s actually a pretty great adult. He certainly doesn’t need my approval, but I am really proud of the guy he’s turning out to be.
I asked him what he likes to eat for his birthday, and one of his answers was a food near and dear to my heart: Cha Siu Bao (say: “cha seew bow” [the last like in bowing down]. These are a Chinese dumpling sort of thing, soft bread on the outside and savory-sweet barbecue pork inside. You can buy them at Chinese bakeries, but they’re often seen at dim sum (say “deem some”), which is a traditional Cantonese lunch. You sit down and waitresses (usually waitresses) bring you water, tea if you want it, which you do, and a paper list of the menu items. They also bring around carts loaded with baskets and plates. You point at what you want (or ask by name, if you speak enough Chinese) and they mark it off on your paper. At the end, they count up how many dishes you ate and that’s your total. But in the meantime, you’re stuffing your face with cha siu bao, ha gow (shrimp dumplings), beef chow fun (big flat noodles in gravy), potstickers, and chicken feet (I don’t. My grandparents do).
There are only a few dim sum restaurants in Orlando, and to be honest I’ve not tried them. I’m a little spoiled by visiting the San Francisco Chinatown with my dad’s parents—I find it hard to believe that dim sum here can be the same, mostly in the emotional sense. Dim sum is so tied in with my family and childhood that I’m not sure what it would be like out here.
Funny story: last year, Robby, Eric, and I were in San Francisco to see family and we sneaked off to Chinatown for the afternoon with our youngest cousin (she’s 14). We went to a dim sum place—first time going without any parents, and we were all sort of scared that the waitresses would see right through us (yes, I know three of us were legal adults). Then a little boy behind us started chanting “Cha siu bao! Cha siu bao!” and we started laughing because it was more or less what we were all thinking. And then we ate basically everything.
[Some of these are smudged with cha siu gravy. Mmmm.]
There are two ways to make cha siu bao: baked, which I’ve done here, and steamed, which Eric did the same week I made these (our whole family was very impressed by itself). The baked kind are a little more convenient if you want to carry them around, for lunch or for bringing to a friend’s place. It is a bit of a time commitment because there are two rise cycles plus bake time, but it’s not difficult. It also calls for cooked cha siu, which you can find at a Chinese deli, or you can try this recipe for making your own (that one’s on my list!).
A few notes:
- The original recipe suggested bringing the cold ingredients to room temperature before mixing into the bread, although I think you can get away without this.
- Here in summer Florida, I needed to add quite a bit of flour; your mileage may vary.
- The bread calls for some cake flour, which I don’t keep around. You can substitute easily, though. To make 1 cup “cake flour,” use 1 cup all-purpose flour – 2 tablespoons. Replace those tablespoons with 2 of cornstarch.
- As with all bread recipes, you can save your arms some trouble by mixing it up in a stand mixer; or you can knead by hand.
- My filling was a little heavy on the sauce, so there was extra sauce inside the bao. Usually bao are pretty dry inside, but the sauce was quite tasty, so choose your own adventure here.
- The simple syrup brush might seem weird, but it’s what gives bao its signature slightly sweet taste.
- If you aren’t sure about how to fold them closed, I found this nifty video for you!