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Meet mantou, the humble base of the bao bun.

By Su-Jit Lin
August 28, 2020
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Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns
Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns
| Credit: Chef John

What Is Mantou?

It doesn't look like much. It's a bread form so simple, it doesn't even need an oven to exist. The dough is basic, comprised of yeast, milk, a wee bit of oil, and flour—extra white and low gluten if you can get it; extra rustic and more toothsome if you can't. Some salt, sugar...maybe a smidge more if you like it Southern-style sweet.

It comes out of a steamer hot and puffy with a light gloss, slightly pockmarked if made at home by hand, but pillowy smooth, satisfying to the eye like a giant, hot marshmallow when factory-made, as they most often are.

This is mantou, the humble base of the redundantly named bao bun that shot into fame by celebrity chefs and has since become ubiquitous across trendy gastropub menus and Asian fusion restaurants.

The History of Mantou

Originally, though, this soothing peasant bread was the great fortifier of the people. Mantou were convenient handhelds perfect for breakfast on the go, filling snacks for laborers in need of quick fuel, which was not a far cry from their original purpose, back in the early 200s, as easy meals for military men on the march, according to their apparent inventor, the legendary military strategist Zhuge Liang. Other sources say his version was a merely a riff off Yi cuisine that goes back to 771 BC.

Regardless, across the continent and over the centuries, as the technique of steaming dough to rise as bread spread, people put their own regional spins on basic mantou. They began taking forms and colors that now run the gamut from memory foam-like rectangles nestling thick slices of butter to festively violet taro or creamy pumpkin versions; from artful folds of bright green scallion sprinkles to fried golden brown for dipping into condensed milk; or misshapen, slightly gray lumps poked by anxious fingers testing it out at home.

Folks began filling the dough before steaming it, with savory meats or sweet custards, curries and meats. The softly rectangular mantou shape shifted to fat, squatty pouches that dripped trails of glimmering juices, semi-closed ivory buds with red sauce peeking through swirled petals. Some got small, meant to be consumed in three dainty bites (Xiǎobāo); others ballooned in size as it steered into its peasant food roots (Dàbāo).

But with that single qualifier of being stuffed, mantou became baozi, which evolved into the baos all over Instagram today.

WATCH: How to Make Steamed Buns

Try your hand at making a basic bao! "You don't need much experience at all to make beautiful barbecue pork buns, a.k.a. char siu bao," says Chef John. "I filled these buns with regular barbecue pork. Regardless of what filling you choose, I hope this video helps shape your technique."

Get the featured recipe for Chef John's Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns.

Regional Varieties of Steamed Buns

Give these regional varieties a try. Or better yet, make up your own combination, and submit it to Allrecipes!

Gua Bao

This is the adaptation of mantou everyone knows, made famous by Eddie Huang (BaoHaus) and David Chang (Momofuku). When the dough is steamed into a flattish semi-circle fold, mantou's name shifts again, this time to he ye bing. Its easy popularity is due not only to the game-changer of steamed bread, but that its shape lends itself to being sandwiched with anything under the sun. Gua bao specifically refers to the Taiwanese combination of pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, and ground peanuts.

Char Siu Bao/Cha Siu Bao

Just as well-known as "bao buns" but more low-key and less glam about it, this Cantonese favorite is one of the easiest mantou buns to find. Served slider size at dim sum and sandwich size at Chinatown bakeries, you'll recognize them by fluffy, bright white folds that nestle a shock of deep brick pork in a sweet, sticky sauce, slightly visible through the steam vent in the middle. You can also find variations of this hit in Malaysian, Singaporean, Japanese, Filipino, Tahitian, and Hawaiian cuisine.

Try this recipe for Chinese Pork Buns (Cha Siu Bao).

Sheng Jian Bao

By now, most of the U.S. has cottoned on to Xiao Long Bao, those soup-filled packets that are much more akin to dumplings than bao. For those who like that burst of broth but wish it came in something sturdier, or those who prefer their dumplings fried, turn to Sheng Jian Bao, its thicker mantou-doughed cousin who adds a seared bottom to the fun. You can get these at places that serve Shanghai cuisine.

Ya Cai Bao

Originally from the Sichuan province, these bring a pungent element to the flavor spectrum of bao. Ya cai is a variety of mustard green sprouts, pickled into crisp but firm shreds of vegetables that add salt, heat, and a very difficult to describe tang to the meat it's sealed and steamed with. Expect savory with a little kick!

Bak Pau/Bah Pau/Rou Bao

The word Pau is a Hokkien, a language specific to the Minnan region of the Fujian province of China. The translation of this bun is generic: it just means meat. Typically, that meat is minced and seasoned pork, but in Muslim Indonesia, you'll discover anything but pork in it, despite the use of the same name. That includes chocolate, marmalade, sweet potato, and more.

Dua Pau/Banh Bao/Siopao

These are not the same in anything other than their being the kitchen sink of mantou-based baos. The Singaporean "Big Pau" starts with pork and hard-boiled eggs, and often expands on that with chicken, all steamed together to create a juicy, savory, rich combination. The Vietnamese version includes Chinese sausage and mushrooms with the hard-boiled eggs and ground pork. Filipino siopao are stuffed with a bevy of local ingredients and flavors, like pork asado or shredded coconut meat, but it's the bola-bola—combining pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, or salted duck eggs—that takes the all-in-one title.

Try this recipe for Siopao (Filipino Steamed Dumplings).

Lop Cheung Bao

At Chinese bakeries, you'll often see hot dogs/frankfurters sticking out awkwardly from both ends of a glossy, golden baked bun. In the steamed version, it feels a little more authentic with the use of Chinese sausage instead, if you have a taste for that dry, salami-like pork.

Dou Sha Bao

Who says bread can't be dessert? Not the people of Northern China! In Shandong Province, Beijing, and Tianjin, mantou dough is stuffed with sweet red bean paste, which some may be familiar with due to the availability of this flavor as ice cream. This filling is obviously not as creamy since it doesn't have dairy, and a bit heartier, but you might find yourself surprised to learn you like the taste even better warm.

Liang Rong Bao

If you like moon cakes, you'll love this. The super-sweet, dense filling is lightened up by both the steam-cook process and the more neutral, low-fat dough of mantou bao. They're also more colorful; it's not uncommon to find them dyed hot pink, sunny yellow, or even whimsically shaped and shaded like a longevity peach.

Nai Huang Bao/Lai Wong Bao/Liu Sha Bao

There are few pastry accompaniments as universally a good idea as custard. This variation of bao is no different. A blend of sweet and salt, it's warm and creamy when enveloped in puffy mantou bread. Try them in Hong Kong-style bakeries and dim sum houses. Look for Lai Wong Bao or Nai Huang Bao if you like the inside a bit firmer, Liu Sha Bao if you want it runny, or just generic Egg Custard Bun if you're willing to take a gamble.

Yam Pau

A pleasantly purple bun, you'll find this among Singaporean snacks. Sweet purple yam paste sits at the center in much the same way as that of its red bean and lotus seed cousins.

Check out our complete collection of Chinese Recipes.

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