SIKS MIKAH grew up loving this fluffy bun filled with sweet and savoury meat. But you can find this bun come in various versions all over the world wherever the Chinese have set root. She went in search of the different kinds of Char Siu Bao within her hometown, Malaysia’s once tin rich town Ipoh.
My father was a foodie of yesteryear. If he were still alive (he would be 89) he would tell you how to spot the best char siu bao in town.
For as long as I can remember, you don’t need the right time of day or date to devour the humble fluffy white bun filled with sweet and savoury roasted meat which is usually pork. Morning and night you will see these steaming hot buns being handed out to customers from a stack of bamboo steamers.
When I was 5-years-old my father would stop at a coffee shop, on our way to the kindergarten, to buy me a hot char siu bao inside a bag made of tracing paper. By the time I reached school, the bao would have fallen out of the torn bag wet by condensation.
Father thought it was a better idea to put the bao in a box – my rectangular metal 101 Dalmatian sandwich box that was 3cm high! The bao didn’t fall out but it became a squashed exploded round disc with oozed out filling.
He used to say, to know if a “Dim Sum” maker is worth his salt it is by how delicious is the char siu bao.
Several decades later, char siu bao from Ipoh continued to warm our tummies for breakfast, lunch and supper. Father would buy them from his favourite ‘dim sum lo’ (dim sum restaurant) in town and filled our freezer with them. He said it was good for rainy days!
It’s been a while since I took over filling my own freezer with the bao. There are so many reasons why I would always prefer the bao from my hometown. When you sink your teeth into one of these dumplings, the crunch from bits of coriander will add a burst of flavour to every mouthful. And you can tell it’s handmade by the slightly dense and textured white dough that burst open when they were steamed.
Ah Mooi, a dim sum stall owner just outside the city centre, sells a good selection of dim sum which includes Tai bao (big bao) which is twice the size of a char siu bao and filled with Chinese sausage, egg, turnip, mushroom, pork and chicken, and the Sang yoke bao (literally means raw meat bao in Cantonese). Of course, it’s not raw meat filling but just a very flavourful well-marinated meat with no dark sauce and not roasted. Tai Bao and sang yoke bao have a distinct flavour of Chinese wine and parsley.
Ah Mooi’s stall opens at 9.15 at night and closes at 3 am. Her customers are usually night club patrons who need a warm bao to quell the spirit before calling it a night.
What adds bite to this snack is the legend behind the bao. It is believed that the bao was invented by a Chinese military strategist in the third century during the Three Kingdom period when the strategist tricked his enemies by making them believe that the 50 giant bao he floated down the river were heads of his soldiers. This succeeded in ensuring his army a safe passage across the river.
Ipoh has a large population of Chinese, the descendants of migrants, who came in the early 20th century to work in the tin mines and rubber estates. They were mostly of the Hakka, Hokkien and Hainan dialect.
One of them is third generation Chinese Charles Wong who is of the Hainan dialect. Charles is an actuarial science graduate in his 20s who has traded his profession for getting up at 4.30 am every day to make Hainan char siu bao for the stall.
His father who operated the stall for 28 years has taught Charles the family bao recipe. The secret to a good bao dough that won’t stick to your teeth is to give the dough sufficient proofing time. The Hainan bao is slightly flat and smooth without the flower shape crack in the dough. The meat filling has no coriander or sesame.
In my pursuit of the prefered bao, I also discovered a tasty selection of vegetarian bao with a particular one filled with braised Mui Choi (dried preserved mustard leaves) in dark savoury and sweet sauce that tastes like the roasted meat sauce.
The Nine Emperor God’s festival, which required devotees to be vegetarians for 9 days, saw the sale of thousands of pink turtle-shaped buns used as offerings by the devotees. These buns are slightly sweet and are sometimes filled with bean paste.
Taste of the char siu bao may vary from one end of the town to another, each finding their places as a prefered version for the patrons, but the humble char siu bao, in general, will steadfastly hold its place as favourite comfort food for all.
Siks Mikah travels frequently & believes that humility opens doors inward and outward.