Taiwanese steamed buns have long been loved by locals, but they rose to fame outside of Taiwan a few years ago when celebrities put them in the spotlight.
For example, Eddie Huang (a Taiwanese-born writer-comedian-restaurateur) opened a pork belly steamed bun or gua bao restaurant in New York City, and internationally renowned Momofuku chef David Chang embraced them by adding Korean flavours.
The steamed bun is not really a sandwich, but given that a bun is considered 'bread' in Asia, we might just get away with calling it one or considering it a glorified cousin. Either way, the beauty of a steamed bun is in its versatility. It can be eaten fresh out of a steamer, deep-fried and dipped in condensed milk like in Beijing, or stuffed with pork and even red beans.
The filling of steamed buns should be something substantial, which is why braised pork belly steamed buns are one of the most popular (but also because the bread absorbs the natural juices of this meat).
Another loved filling is thin omelettes with spring onion. Many Taiwanese families stuff them into steamed buns for a quick breakfast on the go. This flavour is great when paired with sweetened soy milk or bubble tea.
My favourite steamed bun is filled with a classic thick slab of soy-braised pork belly, coriander, salted peanuts and pickled cabbage. It might sound absurd, but the combination of salty and juicy fatty pork, acidic cabbage and crunchy peanuts is bliss.
Taiwanese people take their pork belly steamed buns very seriously — so much so that in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, locals flock from across the country to take photos of one of the museum's most iconic items: a piece of braised fatty pork.
"In the National Palace Museum in Taipei, locals flock from across the country to take photos of one of the museum's most iconic items: a piece of braised fatty pork."
You may be surprised, but the sculpture is uncanny and looks good enough to eat and I highly recommend buying a replica of it in the souvenir shop.
While there are many Taiwanese steamed bun varieties, you really can't beat the original. However, if you're pushed for time, stuffing homemade steamed buns with barbecue pork or roast meat can also work.
Steamed buns (gua bao)
- 360 g all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tsp yeast
- 1 tsp sugar, heaped
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
- ½ tsp salt
- 150 ml water
- Barbecue pork, roast duck or roast pork belly from a Chinese restaurant, sliced
- Chinese pickled cabbage
- Crushed salted peanuts as a garnish
- Bamboo Steamer
- Put the bun ingredients in a mixer and mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes. You can do this by hand. Knead for at least 10 minutes until the dough is springy. Set aside until the mixture has doubled in size and cover with cling film.
- After about 45 minutes, punch the dough down and shape it into even-sized balls on a lightly floured workbench.
- Lightly flatten each ball with the palm of your hand to achieve an elongated shape. Drizzle some olive oil on one side before folding it over onto itself. You should now have made the bun shape.
- Put each bun on a piece of baking paper and cover it with a tea towel. Let them sit on the counter for at least 25 minutes or until they are about 50 per cent bigger (not doubled) in size. This will stop them from collapsing when you put them in the steamer, even after they are steamed.
- In a large pot, boil water. Once boiling, rest your bamboo steamer on this.
- Carefully place your bun inside the steamer and steam for about 10 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, allow the buns to cool down slightly in the steamer (this will stop the buns from becoming wrinkly) and keep warm. You may need to repeat this process depending on how many steamer tiers you have.
- When ready to eat, stuff your buns with your favourite filling.
Note: If you can't braise your own pork belly, head to a good Chinese restaurant and order pork belly over the barbecue counter and stuff into the buns.