Which tastes better, steamed or baked?
We're talking about pork baos, the beloved buns that are a dim sum standard and will be cooked by the dozens as Chinese New Year arrives Sunday.
This question turned into a mini food fight when the Sacramento chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association held a recent meeting. A sampling of local baos was assembled from ABC Bakery, Lam Kwong Deli and Market and Dim Sum House. Those at the meeting dove in and started debating about those sweet yet savory bites.
"I never liked the baked," said Tillie Fong, an AAJA board member who's firmly on Team Steamed. "The baked baos are more Western, almost more like a dinner roll. It doesn't seem as traditional. If I was going to buy them, they'd be steamed."
That's more like "bao humbug" to Michelle Logsdon, a former chef who swears by the baked baos at ABC Bakery on Florin Road near South Land Park Drive.
"The baked are superior," said Logsdon. "It's a texture thing. I prefer that baked feeling when I'm eating them. If they're done right, there's even a little crunch at the bottom and the flavor is amazing."
Baos have a long tradition in Chinese cooking, with some evidence they were gobbled more than 2,000 years ago. Their roots are in the Chinese bread mantou, which was purportedly invented in the second century by Zhuge Liang, a master military strategist. Mantou filled with various meats were thrown in the river to to appease water spirits.
These filled mantou, known as baos, have since become a Chinese staple. No tea lunch, or dim sum, is complete without some baos offered from a passing cart or swirled around the table with a Lazy Susan.
As Chinese immigrants settled in other parts of the world, baos started to feature new influences and fillings, such as the addition of curry in Malaysian baos.
"Baos are quite an art," said Martin Yan, the host of "Yan Can Cook" and noted Chinese cookbook author. "The filling can be anything. There's vegetarian baos with shiitake mushrooms, carrot and cilantro. You can even add a sweet filling. You can really do anything you want."
But in these parts, one bao filling remains supreme: pork, otherwise known as cha siu.
"For me, a bao has to be barbecued pork," said Fong. "That's the taste."
One typical preparation calls for barbecue or roasted pork to first be tossed with seasoning, then mixed with small amounts of ketchup, oyster sauce, sugar and other ingredients. The final product should be red the Chinese symbol of good luck and feature a meaty and sweet taste that makes it tough to eat just one.
That pork filling has to be housed in some kind of bun, and that's where the debate begins. The most traditional bao method calls for packing that pork in a yeasty bun that's steamed. But making an impeccable steamed bao takes much practice, one that's been a kind of lifelong mission for Sacramento's David Soohoo.
"I can talk baos all day," said Soohoo, one of the area's signature chefs of Asian cuisine and co-founder of Chinois East/West. "The steaming process makes the bread juicy and gives it structure. It's glutinous and has a good pull to the mouth. It's delicious and it's perfect. It's also an incredible challenge. A lot of people die with their recipes."
Baked baos are more of an American invention. The traditional Chinese kitchen is a humid space full of steamers and woks. Ovens weren't a fixture of Chinese kitchens until the last 50 to 75 years, said Yan. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants to the United States tweaked some of their bao recipes to accommodate Western tastes.
"Nobody would eat steamed bao since they looked raw," said Soohoo. "There were a lot of Chinese cooking in the Gold Rush and feeding miners, and later they moved to Chinatowns and opened their own restaurants. That's where the baked bao recipes accelerated. The bakers used their techniques to adapt."
The more modern baked bao can be appreciated on its own. A little egg wash over the top before baking adds the golden-brown crown that signals "bite me." The perfect texture is a happy medium: not overly firm, but not so soft that it'll fall apart before you start chomping.
One bonus of the baked bao: They hold up better after they've cooled down. A steamed bun that's fallen in temperature tends to turn sticky, but baked baos hold their form no matter what. Both styles of baos freeze well for later eating.
"Baked baos have a better longevity," said Logsdon. "A bunch of steamed baos probably aren't pleasing after a couple of hours. You have to have those hot and fresh. Sometimes people bring in baos to work, and oh man, it's happiness."
So, the great bao debate can be boiled down to traditionalists vs. contemporary tastes. Most domestic Chinese restaurants and bakeries accommodate both options.
"Nowadays, in a lot of restaurants all over the world, they also have the baked bao," Yan said. "American-born Asians and mainstream Americans like baked stuff, so they're used to that taste. There's no such thing as better. Everyone just has a different preference."
Yan typically orders both baked and steamed baos to share at the dim sum table. Given that three or four baos are usually served with each order, that's plenty to go around. The winner of this time-honored debate is simply a matter of taste.
"Happy people argue over food, and people will argue about bao when we're gone," Soohoo said. "There's so much love put into that bao with the filling. Either way, you win."
Try them for yourself
Looking to stock up on baos for Chinese New Year, or just because they're simply delicious? Here are three local bakeries that make some fine baos. Note that many often run out before the end of the business day.
ABC Bakery, 1309 Florin Road, Sacramento; (916) 421-4259: Any pursuit of baos in the greater Sacramento area should include this Chinese bakery. Tucked into an aging strip mall behind Bel-Air, ABC Bakery offers steamed and pork baos, plus egg custard buns, curry buns and much more.
Lam Kwong Market & Deli, 2031 12th St., Sacramento; (916) 443-8805: Many swear this downtown Chinese grocer creates the best baos in town. Tip: Plan on buying your baos early in the day as they often sell out by lunch time. Prepared Chinese foods are also available to go.
J & J Bakery 6019-F Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 428-0960: Head to south Sacramento and pick up some barbecued pork baos from this bakery. Asian pastries and birthday cakes are also available.