Like a Native American smoke signal marking a hunting spot, a plume of steam unfurling above an alleyway is a telltale sign that a baozi stand is nearby. And when you venture closer, the stacks of large cylindrical bamboo steamers are a dead giveaway.
Native to Northern China, these white puffballs of steamed dough and filling exist in the shadow of xiaolongbao in Shanghai. But despite seeming rather generic, their flavors are as diverse as Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and we’re counting down the more popular ones you’ll find around town. We humbly present the city’s hottest (okay, second hottest) Asian buns.
Pork (肉包, rou bao)
The most common is the pork bao, your standard milled wheat flour skin with a juicy ball of minced pork snuggled inside. You see this filling in everything from xiaolongbao to savory moon cakes. It’s the most ubiquitous in town. You can also get a version marinated in crimson chili oil. Go with the chili oil, it adds some spark to the otherwise standard salt-grease duet. Like with any baozi stand, you’re going to want to arrive in the morning, preferably between 7 and 9. Come late noon, the baozi dough loses its spring, and becomes sodden on the bottom from the cumulative condensation (this is coming from someone who worked at a bao stand for many summers). Each bun runs you between 1-2RMB, 2-2.5RMB if you get them at a convenience store.
Vegetable and bean curd (香干青菜包, xianggan qingcao bao)
Veggie anything usually plays second fiddle to its meat counterpart, but in our opinion the vegetable steamed bun (xianggan qingcao bao, 香干青菜包) blows the pork one out of the steamer. It’s fresh, vibrant, forest-y, and honestly, even as a skull-sucking carnivore, I admit the generic minced pork ball in the meat one gets old after a while. Part of it is there’s a bit more going on here. Inside the steamed flour pillow, you’ve got iridescent-green (at least it should be) chopped Chinese spinach and little white bean curd cubes, which act as mini juice sponges. Not substantial enough? Go for the xianggu qingcai bao (香菇青菜包), the same thing but with mushrooms stepping in for bean curd. These buns cost around the same as their pork counterpart.
Minced pork and shepherd’s purse vegetable (荠菜肉包, ji cai rou bao)
Like a culinary hermit crab, minced pork and shepherd’s purse vegetable is found in a variety of different vessels. Most common is the wonton, but Babi Mantou offers a baozi filled with this stuff as well. Its flavor evokes what would happen if you crossed the pork with the veg bao, except with a lot more greenery than pork. The pork’s so sparse it’s more like a meat mist. 1.5RMB.
See a complete list of Babi Mantou locations here.
Pork belly with preserved mustard greens (梅菜扣肉包, mei cai kou rou bao)
Easily our favorite steamed bun, mei cai kou rou bao is essentially the “portable version” of Hunan mei cai kou rou, a dish of tender wedges of steamed pork belly atop a savory hillock of preserved mustard greens. Bao hawkers don’t always have these in stock, so you might have to head up your nearest mini mart, where they’re around a yuan more expensive at 2.5RMB.
Char siu (叉燒包, chāshāobāo)
If you grew up in the US, you probably know these as those cheap, flaky dough balls filled with red-dyed pork that’s so bright it looks like you colored it with a white-board marker. That’s not the case in Shanghai. Originally from Guangdong, these buns harbor high-grade, slow-roasted char siu pork that’s not artificially-colored and is generally sweetened with honey, five-spice, red fermented bean curd, dark soy, hoisin, and sometimes rice wine. You can find these everywhere from the illustrious Fu Lin Xuan’s dim sum menu to the neighborhood convenience store, where they’ll set you back around 2-2.5RMB.
Fu Li Xuan // Four Points by Sheraton Shanghai,1/F, 1928 Gonghexin Lu, near Daning Lu (大宁福朋喜来登酒店1楼, 共和新路1998号, 近大宁路). Tel: (0)21-6631-3777. Hours: 11am-11pm. Closest metro stop: Yanchang Road, line 1.
Fried beef baozi (煎牛肉包, jiān niúròu bāo)
Here’s one for our muslim readers. A compilation of lush halal beef mingled with veg and stuffed inside a golden fried dough shell, the fried beef baozi is a fixture at the Friday Muslim Market. It’s a nice respite from the traditional pork-in-steamed-dough format. We recommend getting there between 10-11am, these generally sell out by noon. They cost around 2RMB each.
Muslim Market // Corner of Aomen Lu and Changde Lu (澳门路, 近常德路). Hours: 10am-3pm. Closest metro stop: Changshou Road, line 7.
Spicy noodle (香辣粉丝包, xiangla fensi bao)
A baozi eating a sea anemone? No, the spicy noodle bao, glutinous chili-slicked rice noodles inside a mantou cradle. Putting noodles inside steamed bread may seem like carb-ageddon, but due to the contrasting textures and chili, the starches meld well here. We’ve found this at bao stands before, but once again, Babi Mantou’s your best bet. In fact we could do a whole piece just on Babi’s selection, but onto dessert…..
Red bean paste (豆沙包, dou sha bao)
Red bean paste is made from Azuki beans, which are boiled without sugar, mashed into slurry, strained, and dried into a maroon paste. This paste is then combined with sugar or honey, cooked in vegetable oil or lard, and used to fill many types of pastries, including baozi. It evokes sweet refried beans. Very sweet. And it’s a shallow brand of sweetness; blandly saccharine without much else going on. Unless you’ve got the palate of the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, you’re probably not going want more than one. Like the veg and pork, it’s around 1-2RMB on the street.
Black sesame paste (芝麻包, zhi ma bao)
You’ve seen this stuff residing in tangyuan, or glutinous rice balls. Black sesame paste is a fairly simple substance made from roasted sesame seeds that are pestle-ground and whacked with honey. Viscous, pitch-black, and tarry, it looks like something you’d pour from a cauldron onto an enemy besieging your castle. It also tastes like bliss. The sweet-salty-gritty combo makes it a much more interesting baozi tenant than the one-note red bean. Prices vary from place to place, but you shouldn’t be paying more than 2RMB.
Yellow custard (奶黃包, nǎihuángbāo)
Ingredients for this banana-yellow bao filling vary, but usually they entail condensed milk, sugar, butter, custard, powder, egg, and coconut milk, which are whisked together, steamed, mashed, cooled, and then kneaded into balls. This video shows you how to make it at home. The result is thick, sweet, and creamy. Not all street baozi stands sell these, so you might have to head to your neighborhood Family Mart, where they go for 2-2.5RMB. Get there by morning, they generally run out in the afternoon.
Related: 8 EGGceptional Shanghai egg dishes for Easter
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].
[Main image via queenofthechennaults]