If you wanted to invent a convenient and delicious food pocket that fits into the palm of your hand, you would invent something like the bao.
Taiwanese steamed buns (formally known as gua bao, but more widely called bao) have been popular in the West for years now, and come stuffed with a ludicrous variety of fillings at street food stalls and restaurants alike, from fried chicken and kimchi to the more traditional pork belly and cilantro.
But what happens if you've eaten all the gua bao your stomach can handle and you want to branch out? Enter the sheng jian bao.
These buns can be found at Shanghai hawker stalls and dim sum eateries in Hong Kong, but are far less common in the UK. Not as fluffy as your average gua bao, sheng jian bao are pan-fried and then steamed to ensure a crisp bottom but a chewy top. As the bun is cooked, the gelatin in its traditional pork filling melts into a flavourful broth. It's like a regular bao crossed with a soup dumpling—on steroids.
"It's the perfect type of dumpling," says John Li, founder of The Dumpling Shack, a street food stall at Schoolyard Market in East London. "Everyone knows soup dumplings—I love soup dumplings as well, but these are next level. I like things fried! it gives flavour."
Li first encountered sheng jian bao at Cheung Hing Kee, a Michelin-starred establishment in Hong Kong. At the time, his stall was selling potstickers but he quickly realised sheng jian bao would offer his customers something new.
"The feedback we got … It blew up straight away," Li remembers.
Since then, he has experimented with filling sheng jian bao with everything from crab and truffle to crayfish, although minced pork and leek remains his go-to.
I visit The Dumpling Shack on a Saturday morning to find out more about what goes into making sheng jian bao. It isn't easy, Li warns. He's been up since 1 AM making dough and pressing it into circular dumpling skins.
"It's quite a difficult product to do, especially as a street food," he says. "It has to be done fresh. There's yeast in the dough and you can't store it overnight."
As for preparing dumplings in advance, forget about it.
"It starts disintegrating if you do it beforehand," Li says, explaining that it's best to fold and then fry them fresh. "You need to have a lot of manpower. It's not like flipping burgers—I'm not saying that's easy—but sheng jian bao is trickier to do. That's probably one of the reasons why it isn't as big as somewhere in Hong Kong."
Li has three people helping him out at The Dumpling Shack: one in charge of scooping the pork filling into each dumpling skin, another to fold and pinch each dumpling shut, and a third to take the orders. Li mans two huge, tyre-sized wor tip steel pans specially purchased from Shanghai.
"Gua baos are open," he explains as he lights a fire up under one wor tip. "It's like a sandwich. They have a lot more yeast; it's a lot fluffier. The reason why we add yeast to the dough isn't to make it fluffy, it's to make the skin chewier."
May Luu is on folding duties at the stall. Placing the dumpling skin in the palm of one hand, she pleats and pinches the edges until the dumpling is sealed. "Then you just seal it up so none of the juice comes out," she says, gathering all the folds into a little doughy nub and firmly pressing it down. This will be pan-fried face-down in the wor tip. "Then when it cooks in a pan, it goes really crunchy."
The result is a perfectly proportioned sheng jian bao. But when I give it a go, my dumpling busts open. I've used too much filling, Luu explains. "We put a good amount of filling inside, but not too much because otherwise it oozes out."
I try again, this time with a quarter less pork. My folding skills aren't the greatest—the pleats vary in size and end up looking a little lopsided—but I manage to seal the dumpling shut.
"Not bad for a first timer," Luu says approvingly.
"There's an Instagram factor about sheng jian bao," Li says as he transfers a tray of dumplings to his pan. "They do look pretty."
It's true. Instagram is full of pictures of Dumpling Shack's sheng jian bao and its distinctive base, which is fried to a crisp golden colour.
Mine is a little less attractive, but it doesn't look too bad frying in the wor tip. After a few minutes, Li pours in some water, covers the pan with a huge bamboo lid, and leaves the dumplings to steam.
It's only 10.30 AM, but already a crowd has gathered at The Dumpling Shack for the breakfast run, including some hungover locals who greet the people at the stall like old friends.
"On an average Saturday, we serve over a couple of hundred of these," Li says.
He's in his element, hovering between the two pans and taking the occasional peek under the lid. It takes about four minutes of pan-frying and then six for the buns to be fully steamed. After a sprinkle of white and black sesame seeds, he whisks the dumplings into a takeaway box for people to add their choice of sauce: chinkiang vinegar and spicy chili oil.
My handmade sheng jian bao has ended up looking a little on the small side, probably because of my conservative use of filling, but it still tastes delicious. There's a yeasty crunch as I take the first bite, followed by a salty, juicy explosion from the melt-in-the-mouth pork. When offset with vinegar and a spicy chili kick, it's pretty near perfect.
"When I first started it, people weren't that familiar with the concept of dumplings, especially as a street food," Li says. "We were bad at the beginning. But we got better and better!"
It's hard to disagree with that.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.