THE SECRET LIFE OF CHAR SIU BAO
Everyone’s favourite dim sum has a heroic past and an exciting future, writes SARAH ENGSTRAND
FORGET WHAT YOU learned in school. In the era of Instagram and The Final Table, it's not that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, but rather that “the unexamined dish is not worth eating.” Today, more than ever, we fi nd ourselves looking deep – not within or around, but down. Down to our plates, that is.
Take, for example, the humble char siu bao. These sweet and savoury roasted pork buns are a dim sum favourite around the world, with a history that stretches back millennia. Legend has it that this simple snack was invented by one of the greatest minds in Chinese history, Zhuge Liang, the celebrated Chinese military strategist during the Three Kingdoms period in the third century. During one fateful campaign, he was told that the only way to guarantee safe passage across a river was to behead 50 of his men. Instead, he tricked his opponents by creating gigantic steamed buns and throwing down the river so they looked like bobbing heads. And so mantou – the pillowy steamed bun – was born.
Origin stories aside, these steamed, pork-fi lled buns became popular as a hearty source of sustenance for travellers and workers on the Silk Road. The significance of this is astounding. Char siu bao, the ubiquitous snack you can grab from 7-Eleven, predates Mayan temples, Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bible. Think about this: these buns have outlasted entire civilisations and have borne witness to the rise and fall of empires – and now, they're enjoying a much- deserved renaissance.
Just a generation ago, steamed bao were the standard. Today, however, the variations are impressive. From