Pillowy, soft and next-level popular – here's what you need to know about the bao bun
How long would you queue for a taste of the capital's hottest food trend? Half an hour? Forty-five minutes? In the rain? In the cold?
Because none of those things seem to deter the devoted crowds who flock to the Soho premises of BAO, a Taiwanese street food stand turned tiny, buzzy restaurant. At both lunch and dinner service every day the hordes gather, devoted in the pursuit of this coveted, oh-so-Instagrammable, delicacy.
What is a bao bun, anyway?
Soft, pillowy, bright white buns filled with braised pork, pickles and dusted with crumbled peanuts are the order of the day in this little restaurant, which holds only a handful of tables and benches. There's a fried chicken bao bun too, and the lamb bao is epic. You can also swap it up with small plates of specialities, such as a rectangle of blood cake topped with a glistening, cured, golden egg yolk; dainty bowls of rice topped with roasted guinea fowl, or a single scollop brushed with a garlic and bean sauce.
"I think people have really gotten into our food because it's at once something new and something familiar," says Shing Tat, who founded and runs BAO along with his wife, Erchen and sister Wai Ting.
"Bao are the Taiwanese equivalent of a sandwich. It's bread filled with delicious things. Plus it's got that lovely soft sensation when you bite into it, that's very comforting. The most popular item is our classic braised pork topped with coriander and fermented mushrooms, but people love the fried chicken with golden kimchi in a sesame bun, too."
So how are the bao made?
"It's a plain flour, yeast and milk dough, seasoned with a touch of salt and sugar. After being shaped, the bao are proved for three hours, and then steamed. The tricky part is achieving that perfectly soft texture," Shing tells us.
And this Bao restaurant isn't all about clinging to Taiwanese tradition: "We invented a dessert bao that involves deep-frying the bun for a doughnut-like taste. We then fill it with a Horlicks-flavoured ice-cream for that warm/cold sensation," says Shing.
This place is a winning formula from start to finish – save for the required level of hardiness it takes to and get a seat. And if you're happy to take an even more rough-and-ready approach in the pursuit of bao, head to Bao's market stall at Hackney's Netil market, Saturdays from 12-3pm. Or food truck Le Bao, which you can find at Broadway Market near London Fields on Saturdays where pepped-up versions like goats' cheese, pickled cucumber are every inch as delicious.
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