all about bao
Beijing’s Qingfeng Baozi 北京庆丰包子铺
Beijing is known for its chain of Qingfeng Baozi, a blue-collar brand with a 60-year history that arguably peaked in 2013, when President Xi Jinping dropped by for a casual visit. Photos of Xi queuing to buy baozi went viral, and Qingfeng quickly introduced the “President Set” meal—six baozi filled with pork and scallions, with stir-fried liver and greens on the side. Things didn’t stop there: The table and chairs where Xi ate were removed and sent to the company headquarters; the Gulou location became an official stop on domestic package tours; and the otherwise shabby chain launched an aggressive expansion plan, including a “steamed bun research center.”
Tianjin’s Goubuli 天津狗不理
The title “China’s No.1 Bao” is claimed by a brand from a neighboring city, Tianjin—goubuli, which means “dogs ignore.” The baozi that even dogs don’t care about appeared in 1858, although the name actually refers to the nickname of its late Qing dynasty founder Gouzai, or “Puppy,” who insisted he was too busy making bao to speak with customers. Even Empress Dowager Cixi, known for her sophisticated taste, was a fan of Gouzai’s baozi, proclaiming, “The goat running around in the mountains, the wild geese flying between the clouds, the cattle and sheep in the fields, and the rare seafood living in the deep ocean—none are as appetizing as Goubuli. One can live long by eating it.” Today, Goubuli has 98 varieties of baozi and has left behind its regular roots: a plate of eight buns costs over 200 RMB, earning the restaurant the nickname “LV baozi” (its English name is Go Believe). The changes have apparently turned off locals. “We don’t eat Goubuli anymore. They just exist to earn money from tourists,” says Tianjin native Tang Yajun, 35. “When my generation was young, Goubuli baozi were still something ordinary families could afford. But today, no one goes there except out of nostalgia.”
Shanghai’s Pan-fried Baozi and Xinjiang’s Baked Baozi上海生煎包和新疆烤包子
If there’s one thing all these bao have in common, it’s steam. That’s not the case in Xinjiang, where baozi is baked until it turns brown and crispy. And in eastern areas like Shanghai, there are also panfried baozi, called shengjian (生煎, “raw pan-fried,”) or shengjianbao, which have a thick, crunchy, slightly oily base. During cooking, water is sprayed on the buns to ensure that the top, which is not supposed to touch the pan or the oil, remains soft.
Cha Siu Bao 叉烧包
In Cantonese-speaking regions, bao is represented by a popular kind of dim sum, cha siu bao: Snowy white, cracked open at the top, and filled with barbecued pork ( cha siu). Though they might look similar to steamed baozi, the dough of cha siu bao use both yeast and baking powder as leavening, giving the dough a soft yet firm texture.
Sweet tooths may enjoy liushabao, or “quicksand bao,” another Cantonese snake made with salted egg yolk, wheat starch, butter, and milk. The hot custard runs out of the fluffy wrapper like quicksand on first bite— so don’t risk jabbing it with a chopstick like a certain lifestyle magazine encourages.
Chinese and foreign media, including People’s Daily Online and the AP, went wild for this American-designed, Italian-inspired concoction, when it debuted earlier this year at food fairs and pop-up restaurants. Fed up with the dodgy fillings and stodgy dough that are the mainstay of many baozi, two Americans hired a baozi master to fill a light, fluffy, slightly herbed bun with a variety of pizza-like ingredients (pepperoni, tomato, cheese, jalapenos), creating a hybrid gourmet “baozza” that seemed to delight international foodies as much as annoy traditionalists. When TWOC offered a sample to one local vendor, he vehemently insisted that most Chinese would hate the cheese filling, and prefer his best-selling mushroom variety—but the brand’s growing popularity suggests otherwise.
Clockwise from top left: chasiubao; steamer basket for cooking bao; baked bao; regular steamed bao; panfried shengjianbao; and liushabao