Melbourne has long embraced baos of all shapes and sizes. We’ve sucked up xiaolongbao in Chinatown, stuffed ourselves with char siu bao at yum cha and sought-out delicate sweet baos filled with custard or red bean.
“Baos are a global phenomenon,” says Paul Easson, executive chef of QT Melbourne and its Japanese-Korean bar Hot Sauce. He would know. In preparation for their menu at the newly opened hotel on Russell Street in the CBD, Easson and QT Melbourne Creative Food Director Rob Marchetti visited New York, Taiwan and Hong Kong to sample the best street foods and snacks, including a stop at Hong Kong’s famed Little Bao.“That visit really put me onto the idea to mesh Western and Asian flavours in the bao,” says Easson. “I remember their ‘Sloppy Chan’, filled with braised tempeh, truffle mayonnaise, sweet pickled daikon and fried shallots – the inclusion of truffle mayo was genius.”
Their research led to Easson and Marchetti putting an unusual spin on the baos at Hot Sauce: burgers. “Bao casings work really well with burger ingredients,” says Easson. At Hot Sauce, crispy fried chicken, and pork belly bao burgers are already bestsellers, and the menu also contains a ground beef burger bao and a BBQ tofu bao burger.
In keeping with the theme, Hot Sauce’s condiments have an American diner edge. The fried chicken bao is paired with American yellow cheese and kimchi, while the beef bao has fried cayenne onions and pickled daikon. As for the pickled Chinese bitter melon on the barbeque tofu bao, Easson says it has a sweet “candied” flavour, rather than the vegetable’s traditional bitterness.
Easson says the key to a good bao is the balance of textures and flavours. “You need crunch, some heat and a little bit of sweetness,” he says. “Our baos are made with a bit of pork fat, so they’re slightly sweeter and much richer than regular steamed baos.”
If you base your drink around your choice of bao, Easson recommends you pair the pork with The Stingy Priest cocktail featuring vodka, shochu, apple cider shrub, cinnamon-sugar and rhubarb. If you go for the chicken bao, he suggests The Enenra cocktail featuring mezcal, sake and spiced maple syrup.
For those thinking about making baos at home, Easson has some tips. Arm yourself with rice flour, a rising agent (such as baking powder), pork fat, and a good steamer. If you don’t have much time, bao wrappers are available to buy at most Asian groceries. “All you have to do is steam, fill and serve,” says Easson.
Just make sure you don’t go overboard on the amount of filling. It can get messy.
Easson’s top kitchen cupboard fillings for DIY baos
Mix and match from the below ingredients. Each bao requires an element of crunch, heat and sweetness, in addition to your main protein.
Pickled mustard greens or fried shallots (available from your local Asian grocery).
Kimchi, Chinese chilli oil or a fennel salad.
Hoisin sauce or Japanese mayonnaise.
This article is produced in partnership with QT Melbourne.