Char Siu Bao - Chinese steamed buns

04 April 2018

Char Siu Bao - Chinese Steamed Buns

Here’s a guilty secret. Although I’ve now been to Hong Kong a number of times, and the Chinese mainland a couple of times, I’ve still not really gotten the hang of eating easily with chopsticks. Not that I don’t know the technique, just that it’s not practiced to the point of proficiency. When taken to a high quality Chinese restaurant by generous hosts and asked what I would like to eat, I would scour the menu and be principally drawn to things that I knew would be easy to enough for a ham-fisted chopstick holder to cope with, so I could not look like an idiot Westerner in front of my new friends.

I don’t imagine I got away with it, although of course my hosts were always unfailingly polite. 

These steamed buns with barbecue pork are the sort of things I would certainly have ordered, since they are easy to eat. Having now had a go at making them, they are now the sort of things I would order simply because they are delicious. That said, they’re quite a lot of work to make yourself. But definitely worth it.

The dough for these buns is made with both yeast and baking powder, which is what makes them rise and crack open in the way they’re meant to. Getting the right amount of filling for each bun is the trick. It’s easy to end up with dough that’s too thick, but it comes with practice.

In the mean time, I guess I should just bite the bullet and practice eating with sticks. Whoever first thought, when confronted by a plate of noodles, that these were the natural solution?

Char Siu Bao - Chinese steamed buns

This recipe is lightly adapted from the BBC Good Food website for the barbecue pork, and the Food of the World book for the steamed buns.

Serves: 18 buns

For the barbecue pork

700g pork belly, rind removed
6 cloves garlic
1 2in piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
4 tablespoons hoisin sauce
4 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable or groundnut oil

For the dough

400g plain flour
250ml warm water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 sachet dried active yeast
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons vegetable or groundnut oil

For the pork mix

1 tablespoon vegetable or groundnut oil
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
Half a tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon caster sugar

Chilli sauce for dipping.



Mix together all the pork marinade ingredients and tip over the pork. Massage it into the meat so it’s fully coated, cover and chill in the fridge for several hours and preferably overnight.

Heat the oven to 140ºC / 120ºC fan oven. Cover with foil, and cook the pork for around 4 hours, removing every hour or so to baste. After four hours, put up the temperature to 180ºC/160ºC, remove the foil and cook for another half an hour or until the meat is beginning to caramelise.

Pour off any fat, leaving just the sauce in the pan. Slice or pull apart the pork - it should just fall apart - and mix with the sauce.

To make the dough, add the sugar to the warm water and stir to dissolve. Once this is done, add the yeast and stir it in, along with 1 tablespoon of the flour. Leave for ten minutes for the yeast to feed on the sugar and the flour - after which time the mix should be foaming gently.

Put the rest of the flour in a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour in the yeast mixture and the oil.  Mix together and turn out onto a floured board to knead for ten minutes or so until the dough is smooth. As with any bread, if it’s too sticky, add a little more flour. If it’s too dry, add a little more warm water. Put the dough back in the bowl to rise, covered in a warm place.

Once the dough has risen, punch it down. Refrigerate until needed. 

Once you’re ready to go, flatten the dough and add the baking powder to the centre. Enclose it by pulling up the sides and sealing them, and then knead the dough for a while to fully distribute the baking powder throughout.

For the pork mix, heat the oil in a pan or a wok. Add the pork, the rice wine, sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar and heat through until the sugar has dissolved. Leave to cool.

Divide the dough into 18 even-sized portions. Push them into circles, slightly thicker in the middle than at the edges. Place a small quantity of filling in the middle and pull the sides up to enclose the filling. Pinch together the top and put the buns onto greaseproof paper. 

The buns will swell as they cook, so place them with plenty of space between them in as many steamers as you have (of course, you use bamboo steamers to be authentic, but I used my double decker steel steamer and the steam is much the same). Steam them for 15 minutes, and serve with a chilli dipping sauce.