THE SE­CRET LIFE OF CHAR SIU BAO

Ev­ery­one’s favourite dim sum has a heroic past and an ex­cit­ing fu­ture, writes SARAH ENGSTRAND

#Legend - - FOOD -

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

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