Char siu bao is a staple of dim sum tables around the world. Though it may look simple to make, getting it right takes years to master.
Char siu bao is a Cantonese-style bun filled with sweet barbecued pork. It’s a staple of dim sum tables around the world, and though it may look simple to make, getting it right takes years to master.
“When you’re wrapping the bun, you need to be careful not to let the sauce from the filling get on the skin. Otherwise it will appear patchy and not evenly white after you steam it,” says Victoria Yau, the youngest dim sum chef at Shang Palace, the one Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong’s Shangri-La Hotel.
It took Yau about a month to nail down the art of wrapping a char siu bao. But for her mentor, Leung Kin-wai, the head chef at Shang Palace, it took him much longer, about three months.
“I wasn’t as lucky as Victoria,” Leung says. “It was more difficult for me when I first entered the industry. It was tougher. The masters back then were a lot more strict. In my generation, the masters would think that if you learned the skills then you’d be able to replace them. So, in order to protect themselves, they wouldn’t teach us that many skills.”
Yau and Leung represent two different generations of dim sum chefs. Leung has been at it for nearly three decades, and Yau started just four years ago.
The main component of a char siu bao is the roast pork filling, which is made with pork jowl that’s combined with a sweet marinade of ginger, scallion, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and chicken stock.
“Then, we turn it into a slurry by adding corn flour and corn starch,” Leung says. “The amount of gluten and chewiness these two produce are different.
Finally, they add granulated sugar, which gives the char siu sauce a shine, and maltose for an extra layer of sweetness.
The skin is made with a sourdough starter mixed with water, sugar, ammonium carbonate, and alkaline water to balance out the sourness. Ammonium carbonate is what makes the dough crack into the signature flower pattern when it’s steamed.
“Lastly, we add baking powder and low-gluten flour,” Leung says. “We mix it all together and knead it until it’s smooth.”
The ideal ratio between skin and filling is one to one, according to Leung. The buns are steamed for about four minutes before they’re ready to serve.
“The perfect char siu bao,” Leung says, “should not have filling spilling out, but you can see a little sauce peeking out from the top. And the three sides should look like petals of a flower.”