It's a cold winter's morning in Christchurch, New Zealand. Our toes might have lost all feeling but our hands are toasty warm. That's because they're hovering above an oversized steamer filled with white buns waiting to be plucked out for the hungry customers gathered around our stall.
Char siu bao, or pork steamed buns, are just a single chapter in the story our parents started when they moved from Guangzhou in Hong Kong to New Zealand to build a new life. For over two decades, our family has operated a Chinese food cart at one of Christchurch's large outdoor markets. We like to joke that our parents did street food long before street food was cool.
Growing up in a family with a food business means that certain dishes feature vividly in our memories. None more so than pork steamed buns.
The buns first entered our lives nearly 20 years ago, when Mum and Dad decided to diversify the food cart's offering beyond its usual wok-fried dishes. They settled on the pork buns, but this was long before the days of being able to Google a dish and immediately find step-by-step recipe instructions. They had to learn how to make buns the hard way: through trial and error.
The first few years were the trickiest. They would open the steamer to find tough yellow skins, gummy dough, and a lack of the characteristic puffiness crucial to a good pork bun. But each bun—no matter how dishearteningly un-puffy—helped our parents hone their recipe.
When they finally hit upon a bun that was good enough to sell, Fridays became bun-making days. Dad has since upgraded to an industrial mixer, but for years it was a proper elbow grease-effort to knead the big blobs of dough until they were smooth, soft, and pliable. When it comes to bun-wrapping, our parents are the ultimate tag team: Dad rolls nuggets of dough into neat round discs, then Mum fills the wrappers and rapidly pleats them into pert buns ready for steaming. Their teamwork became a strong blueprint for what it means to work well together, something that we draw on today in our Dumpling Sisters project.
When we started writing The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook, we knew that the dim sum chapter wouldn't be complete without char siu bao, which is known as one of the "big three" dim sum, alongside open-top siu mai and translucent har gow dumplings. We asked our parents whether we could use their recipe, which had been a closely guarded secret for many years. Immortalising it in print felt like an apt way to honour a dish that has been a source of such family pride and so popular with our Christchurch customers—especially those early market-goers who took a punt on the unusual looking blobs we were selling. "Is it made from mashed potato?" asked many intrigued customers back when our parents were starting out.
Most of the recipes in our cookbook were developed over the course of days or weeks, but the recipe for char siu bao is extra special because of its long history. Like many dim sum, steamed buns call for special ingredients and techniques that are generally the preserve of trained dim sum chefs, rather than self-taught home cooks. Our family recipe is the product of years spent trying out different combinations of low-protein flours for a snowy white exterior, pungent old-school raising agents for maximum rise, and careful wrapping techniques to achieve the iconic plump and bursting shape of char siu bao. Every now and again, our parents still tweak the recipe in pursuit of the ideal bun.
Over the past few of years, we've seen Taiwanese-style gua bao become hugely popular with Western diners. With their cute open sandwich-like appearance and variety of fillings, it's easy to see why these type of buns have spawned their own food trend. But the classic char siu bao will always hold the top spot in our hearts. For us, this rustic elder cousin of the bao family is the ultimate comfort food. Nothing beats sinking your teeth into the marshmallowy white wrapper to reach the traditional red roast pork sauce filling.
Pork buns will always have a presence in our lives. Our younger brother Justin still mans the bun stall in Christchurch, we've shared our recipe with anyone keen to try their hand at making homemade buns, and one day we'll take great joy in passing the stories these buns hold onto our children.
Sisters Amy and Julie Zhang grew up in New Zealand and now live in London. As "The Dumpling Sisters," they run a popular blog and YouTube channelshowcasing simple Asian recipes and cooking techniques. In 2015, they published The Dumpling Sisters Cookbook.
Illustrations by Alice Duke.
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.