Buns & seats

Buns and seats_feature

Famed for eponymous steamed buns, Bao is set to expand from shed-like premises on Hackney’s Netil Market to a thirty-cover restaurant in central Soho. Douglas Blyde takes tea with the founding trio.

Erchen Chang warms the dainty, matt, ceramic teapot then drops in a few sprigs of antique, cold-baked oolong. ‘Can be as complex as aged wine,’ she says as ten year-old leaves languidly swell in hot Hackney tap. I consider the aromas. ‘Smoky, complex and nutty?’ offers Wai Ting. ‘With natural sweetness,’ says Erchen, adding, ‘I once had tea that made me feel drunk.’ ‘Only with Taiwanese tea!’ jokes Wai Ting.

I sip the depthful drink with Nottingham-raised siblings, Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung, and Shing Tat’s Taiwan-born partner, Erchen at Bao’s unit in Netil Market – the cosy, six-stool strong prototype soon to spawn a larger sequel on Soho’s Lexington Street. With tongue-in-groove hatches bolted against the icy day, our faces are illuminated only by a homemade counter-top light-box. It bears, for regulars, the now familiar high-contrast image of a multi-chinned diner stuffing a palm-sized milk bun. In their land of origin, Taiwan, these ‘gua bao’ are often referred to as ‘tiger bites pig’ on account of their jaunty, jaw-like appearance.

‘Our parents, grandparents, aunty and uncle had restaurants in Nottingham, although they didn’t believe me when I said we were doing just three items,’ says Wai Ting. Pouring now darker tea, Erchen recounts the first time the trio ‘traded properly’ at a night market. ‘A girl cried and hugged me because she enjoyed her food so much!’ Although exaggerated, the guest’s praise did not occur in isolation. Plaudits followed fast, from ‘Best Street Food’ (Young British Foodies) to ‘People’s Choice’ and ‘Best Main Dish’ (British Street Food Awards). ‘They pushed us to keep going,’ says Shing Tat.

The promise of serious investment came too, in the form of Karam Sethi of critically-respected restaurants Trishna, Gymkhana and Bubbledogs, who the team describe as foremost a fan. ‘We’re honoured,’ says Shing Tat. ‘The Sethi family provides us support, knowledge and experience, while still allowing us freedom when it comes to food and branding.’

Following a year of trips to the humid, seismic, mountainous island of Taiwan, where the team suffered their food hell of ‘plane food’ too often for comfort, Bao ‘mark two’ follows the Xiaochi, or ‘small eats’ snackerias in Erchen’s hometown, Taipei. ‘Better for your metabolism to snack throughout the day rather than eat three big meals,’ appraises Wai Ting while Erchen monitor a steamer. ‘We went to a remote, barely signed Baozi outside Taipei where, out of nowhere, we saw thirty people in a queue. Curious, we joined it. Inside, ten men and women worked in front of us, making the best, really fluffy buns. Sadly, you could only get five to take away: the softest, lightest things…’

A cooking timer sounds, signalling the arrival of the first of an array of dishes that will feature on Soho’s larger menu, including a small bowl of rich, braised beef bones and chilli paste broth, conveyed via small wooden spoon. ‘Almost the equivalent of miso soup,’ says Shing Tat. Sweet, pan-fried scallop served in shell with pleasurably crunchy confit garlic flakes (see recipe) and ‘sip-able sauce’ of Szechuan chilli oil and seaweed powder follows. How genuine are these dishes, I ask? ‘We’re trying to be authentic, but more refined,’ says Shing Tat, ‘so we might substitute an ingredient if we think it will improve the dish.’

Despite the promise of more space, the trio, who studied art, fashion, and design and technology between them, will retain the hut’s down-to-earth legacy in Soho. ‘We’ll be keeping a wooden aesthetic,’ says Shing Tat. ‘Stripped back with coat hangers, communal tables, a couple of ceiling fans, low pendant lighting and a window into the kitchen…’ Care of Wai Ting, staff sport lab-type jackets from Hong Kong embroidered with trademark bao-binger motif. So, from where will colour come? ‘Let people bring it,’ says Wai Ting, ‘and the vibrancy – we might not even need music.’

I try a dab of super-savoury aged white soy sauce, which fans on the tongue like a peacock’s tail. ‘Until recently, I was eating it all the time without knowing how rare it was,’ says Erchen, who just pre-ordered three hundred and sixty bottles from Taiwan. ‘They only go on sale twice a year.’

Next, shreds of turkey are mingled with slow-cooked quail’s egg, cleansing pickled cucumbers, and firm, individually-discernibly grains of well-textured chiu xiang short grain rice, all bound in supple goose dripping. It feels like a combination of the best ever leftovers, and is, as with all Bao’s dishes today, balanced. Finally, I taste one of the team’s wildly popular airy bao buns clutching braised pork belly, coriander and peanut shavings: its jaw-sticking properties temporarily render me quiet. These, along with trotter nuggets, pig blood and ‘bite-y’ (says Shing Tat) glutinous rice ‘lollipops’, and lamb tongue fries with curry dip, will be ordered via ‘a tick-style’ menu in Soho.

In addition to fine teas counter-side, drinks include three sakes (one sparkling), three Taiwanese and Japanese beers and three whiskies, and, incongruously, Horlicks. ‘Ovaltine’s also popular in Taipei!’ informs Shing Tat. With the words, ‘Would you like to try it, Sir?’ he then offers me a brew from closer to home. Herefordshire cider (Yarlington Mill) is wild and fulsome, being pleasantly stinky and tastily tacky. ‘People don’t realise how good cider can be,’ says Wai Ting. ‘And it cuts through fat.’

Unfortunately not on taste-trial today are sweeter components, including milk ice cream wrap with coriander. ‘A crazy classic Taiwanese dish, like a burrito, with peanuts and coriander,’ says Shing Tat.

‘Taiwanese food isn’t completely well-known here,’ says Wai Ting. ‘Our aim to do this next site very well and where it takes us, we’ll see!’

Bao 53 Lexington Street, London W1F 9AS | baolondon.com | FB: | T:

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