An illustrated compendium of Chinese baos

Jun 19

Illustrations by Annie Hall

When it comes to Chinese food, few dishes are as beloved and portable as the bao. The etymology of the Chinese character bao 【包】 is “to wrap up,” which is a rather apt description for it.

In the West, the term bao is often used interchangeably with dumpling. That’s not entirely accurate—not all baos are dumplings, and not all dumplings are baos.

The typical bao tends to come with a leavened exterior and is usually steamed. There are some exceptions: xiaolongbaos and tangbaos, for example, don’t have fluffy skin.

The exact criteria for a bao can therefore be quite murky, but across most regions in the Greater China area, they’re perhaps the most ubiquitous dish, usually eaten for breakfast and often on the go.

The permutations are endless, so we’ve compiled a guide to all things bao.

 

1. Standard Pork Bao 猪肉包子

Location: All over China

This standard bao is a pork-based ball, made with a bleached white wheat exterior that has been leavened with yeast. Its ancestor is the mantou, which is just a plain steamed bun. At some point, people decided to stuff things inside and thus the bao was born. Pork is the default filling of choice. The pig is the centerpiece protein of the Chinese household. In fact, the character for “family,” 【家】means pig under a roof. Various aromatics such as ginger and scallions give the meat an extra layer of flavor. The baos are cooked in a steamer basket and are usually sold in the early morning by mom-and-pop street vendors.

2. Vegetarian Bao 菜包

Location: All over China

The vegetarian bao uses tofu and/or mushrooms as a filler. Shiitake mushrooms and miniature cubes of firm tofu are often employed to add volume. Sometimes, one might even find minced pieces of cellophane noodles in their veggie bao. The key to these baos is the seasoning. Chives and scrambled eggs are often used for flavor, and black or white pepper is used liberally for that extra kick.

3. Xiaolong Bao 小笼包

Location: Shanghai

The xiaolongbao rose to international prominence by way of the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, but its origins lie in Shanghai. The literal translation from Mandarin is “little caged buns,” likely after the steamer baskets that they come in. The secret lies in the filling, which is made soupy by chunks of congealed pork broth and ground pork seasoned with Shaoxing wine, green onion, ginger, light soy sauce, and a bit of sesame oil. The skin—believe it or not—is just wheat flour and water. It’s rolled out to a papery thin texture and pinched together with eighteen exquisite folds on the top.

4. Giant Soup Bao 蟹黄大汤包

Location: Jiangsu

This is the Goliath of soup dumplings and hails from the city of Wuxi in the Jiangsu province of China. Wuxi is known for its saccharine food and this dish is no exception. The giant dumpling stuffs bits of crab, pork, gelatin, and sugar suspended in a soup. The skin is unleavened, but is quite leathery and robust. After all, it has to hold quite a bit of liquid. How to eat this: use a straw to suck the broth out before going to town.

5. Shengjian Bao 生煎包

Location: Shanghai

Shengjianbaos first starting appearing in local Shanghai tea houses in the 1930s. They are rather small buns—semi-leavened—stuffed with pork and decorated with sesame seeds and a bit of chopped scallions. These are pan-fried in a giant cast iron, which creates a crisp bottom.  They have quite a bit of juice to them as well. The baos are traditionally sold in groups of four during breakfast time.

6: Shuijian Bao 水煎包

Location: Shandong

This bao is often confused with its Shanghainese counterpart, the shengjiang bao. The main difference lies in the shape. This version comes from northern China, is more oblong, and is made of a pork and gelatin filling that is encased in a thick yet tender semi-leavened dough. Unlike the shengjiang bao, it isn’t topped with sesame. The contrast between the crunchiness of the bottom of the bao and the softness of rest of its skin is the main attraction of the dish.

7. Go Believe Bao 狗不理包

Location: Tianjin

This is a staple of Tianjin, an eastern province of China that hugs the northern coastline. Its unusual name is a transliteration of its Chinese name “goubuli bao,” which translates to a bao that is ignored by a dog. The story is that this iteration was invented in 1858 by a young man who was nicknamed “dog.” His buns were so popular that he didn’t have time to talk to his customers, hence the name “ignored by a dog.” This pork bao fits in the palm of your hand, and compared to other classes of buns, the exterior is a bit more delicate. It’s not as dense and has a softer mouthfeel.

8. Gua Bao 刈包

Location: Fujian and Taiwan

Gua bao translates to  “cut bun” in Mandarin and it’s the only bao on this list that isn’t completely wrapped up. The delicacy reportedly originates from Fujian but these days, it’s most commonly associated with Taiwan. Gua bao is the Asian equivalent of a taco. It’s a steamed white bun that encloses a slab of fatty pork and is garnished with pickled mustard greens, crushed peanuts, sugar, and cilantro. In the northern part of Taiwan, gua bao is a festival dish, loved predominantly by the Northern Taiwanese and celebrated during the Weiya Festival at the end of the year.

9. Lamb and Pumpkin Bao 南瓜薄皮包

Location: Xinjiang

This is a Uyghur special, found exclusively in Xinjiang province. Minced lamb and butternut squash are the main fillings. Onions and carrots are optional and cumin is the predominant spice of choice. This is a dish that can be found all over Central Asia and is a welcome respite from all the pork-heavy baos. The natural sweetness of the butternut squash cuts the gaminess of the lamb. The skin is unleavened and thin-ish—a middle-ground between soup dumplings and shengjianbaos.

10. Sichuan Xiaolong 川味小笼包

Location: Sichuan

Sichuan-style xiaolongs have no soup inside and their skins are semi-leavened. They’re much thicker than a xiaolongbao but thinner than a standard bao; they’re called xiaolongs simply because they’re served in steamer baskets. Like many of the baos on this list, this variety is also stuffed with pork and eaten for breakfast. The biggest feature is that the exterior is a sourdough wrapper, which gives it an extra depth of flavor.

11. Cheese Bao 奶渣包

Location: Tibet

For Tibetans, yak cheese and butter are irrevocable staples so naturally, their baos feature both. These buns are made with dried cheese curds, yak butter, and a heaping of dashed scallions. Melted butter gives this bao its juice and the dried cheese, when steamed, becomes like oozy mozzarella. The scallions add a much-needed piquant kick to the dish.

12. Standard Charsiu Bao 叉烧包

Location: Hong Kong

This steamed bao has a smooth and white exterior with a dark red filling of charsiu—a Cantonese style of diced barbecued pork, slow-cooked in a thick mixture of honey, soy sauce, oyster sauce, five spice, and sesame seed oil. The bun is leavened with both yeast and baking powder, making it dense and fluffy. The top cracks into flower-like segments that exposes its filling and spongy texture. Said to have been created in 200 AD, it's now one of the "four big kings" (四大天王) of Hong Kong dim sum, alongside har gow, siu mai and egg tarts.

13. Baked Charsiu Bao 烤叉烧包

Location: Hong Kong

Smooth, round and a deep golden color, this bao still has the same dark red charsiu filling like its steamed counterpart. The difference lies in the bread, which is dense and yellow, glazed with maltose and an egg wash. It can come in both large and small sizes: the large kind is typically sold in bakeries as breakfast or an afternoon snack, while the small kind can be found in dim sum parlors, sometimes topped with a few sesame seeds as decoration. Hawaiians have a very similar adaptation -- manapua—that was brought by Chinese immigrants in the 18th century.

14. Sausage Bao 腊肠包

Location: Hong Kong

An old-school favorite that harkens memories of childhood for Cantonese folks, these savory treats are known as laap cheung bao in Cantonese. Yeast-based dough is wrapped in a spiral around a piece of laap cheung, a sweet Chinese dried sausage made from pig meat and fat. The result is a succulent, savory flavor that is balanced out by the sweetness of the bread.

15. Peach Longevity Bao 莲蓉包/寿包

Location: Hong Kong

This is the bao version of the peach emoji, except there’s no peach inside. Instead, the interior is made with dried lotus seeds that has been stewed in hot water and then crushed and strained. This bao is a symbol of longevity, considered such because of a Chinese myth of a goddess who grows peaches of immortality in her garden. Lotus seeds are also considered a luxurious ingredient. This bao is eaten at birthdays to wish the celebrant a long and healthy life and typically needs to be preordered at restaurants.

16. Custard Bao 奶黄包

Location: Hong Kong

This is a smooth round bun that contains a bright yellow custard filling, made with egg, dried milk powder, flour, heavy cream, melted butter, and sugar. It is both savory and sweet, and always served piping hot. Logistically speaking, this bao is most reminiscent of chocolate lava cake; the insides ooze out when you bite into one.

17. Black Sesame Bao 黑芝麻包

Location: Hong Kong

The black sesame bao is commonly found in dim sum restaurants. The sesame paste is made by blending sugar and ground black sesame seeds. The consistency of this bao ranges from vendor to vendor and can go from being rather gritty to being super smooth and creamy. Fun fact: the difference between black sesame and white sesame is that the latter has the hulls removed. The former is much more flavorful.

18. Red Bean Bao 红豆包

Located: Hong Kong

Red bean paste is made with mashed azuki beans and sugar. It’s a common dessert ingredient throughout east Asia that often manifests itself in soup or pastry form. In this case, it’s been stuffed inside a bao. Now it isn’t for everyone—some folks are put off by the flavor of sweet beans. But the people who like it adore it for its beany texture.

19. Pineapple Bao 菠萝包

Location: Hong Kong

Hate to break it, but there are no pineapples in a pineapple bao. This bao has a round bread base topped with a golden layer of sugary crust. When baked, it cracks into a checkerboard pattern that resembles the texture of a pineapple, hence its misleading name. It’s usually eaten for breakfast or in the mid-afternoon. It can also be served with a variety of fillings: most commonly a square of cold butter in the middle. Charsiu, luncheon meats or eggs are also sometimes used as fillers. Adaptations of this dish also exist in Japan and Mexico: the melonpan and the concha, respectively.

20. Cute Baos 可爱包

Location: Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, cute baos have been debuting across social media channels in droves. It’s because dim sum chefs have really been flexing their creativity in the past decades. After all, we now live in a world where photogenic food gets lines forming around the block. Think vomiting egg custard buns, and baos shaped like animals and cartoon characters.

 

Clarissa Wei is a senior reporter at Goldthread. She spent the bulk of her career as a freelance journalist and has written for outlets like VICE, CNN, Eater, among others. Clarissa has backpacked to over a dozen provinces in China and was once a volcano hiking guide in Nicaragua.

Sierra Chiao is an intern with Goldthread, and is currently attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Catch her in the bubble tea line!

Ashley Kung is an intern with Goldthread, and is approaching her final year at Columbia University, where she’s studying creative writing and East Asian studies.