Image above: Pork Belly Steamed Buns flickr photo by City Foodsters shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I’m here to address what so many people call, “bao buns”. The terminology in itself is interesting as it’s a word coined by the Western market to sell something distinctly Fuzhounese (a subgroup of people stemming from China). Think of it like selling Yorkshire puddings (something specific to Yorkshire, within the UK) to the Eastern market.

Bao buns aren’t bao buns

That’s right. The word bao, 包 usually means a yeast-leavened bun, a bag or as a verb, “to wrap something”. We use the word bao to mean a lot of different bun type foods, from the popular dim sum char sui bao, 叉燒包, “roast pork bun” to the Western bread we are used to seeing on British shelves, 麵包, literally “wheat bun”.

When you say bao bun, you are essentially saying bun bun

Elsa Lee

The quote above is basically what I think anytime anyone says bao bun. I know what you mean when you say or write it, but I cannot get past what it means to me.

What are bao buns?

Gua bao from Viet Shack

Ok, so let’s examine what is commonly being referred to as the “bao bun”. The actual name for these types of buns with filling is gua bao, 割包 (or 刈包 in slang, taken from Japanese kanji), literally “cut bread”. The white bun itself is called a lotus leaf bun, 荷葉包, due to its shape.

The bun itself is made from similar ingredients to baked bread, consisting of plain flour, yeast, baking powder, water and sugar. However, instead of baking the dough, it is steamed instead

Traditionally, the filling is a red-stewed pork belly accompanied with pickled mustard greens, coriander and peanut powder. If it doesn’t contain pork belly, it cannot be called a “gua bao”. Instead, a “lotus leaf bun sandwich” might be the more correct term.

What other names are used for a bao bun?

I’ve tried to look for how the term “bao bun” was coined, but can’t seem to find a source for it.

  • Gua Bao 割包/刈包 – The actual term for this type of bun that contains pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander and peanut powder. This term is also used by Eddie Huang of Fresh Off the Boat and BaoHaus restaurant fame. Huang is Taiwanese American.
  • Lotus Leaf Bun Sandwich – Or just simply Lotus Leaf Bun 荷葉包. I personally think this term is the most accurate to describe the use of the lotus leaf bun with any filling.
  • Taiwanese Hamburger – A popular name targeted at English speakers in Taiwan, where there was a large migration of Fuzhounese Chinese people. This is also where it gained increasing popularity as a food item and where Western markets heard about it first.
  • “Tiger Bites Pig” 虎咬豬 – Some information from Sam from @foodjunkie_UK on Instagram. This is a colloquial term used in Taiwan as it looks like a mouth biting pork. The wording also sounds the same as the phrase “福咬住” which means “bite the luck”. For this reason, and because the bun looks like a fat wallet with money, it is also eaten at end of year business meals.
  • Pork Belly Bun – Popularised by David Chang who owns the Momofuku noodle restaurant chain. Chang himself is a Korean American. You may recognise him from the Ugly Delicious series on Netflix.
  • Hirata Bun – On the back of Momofuku’s popularity of the gua bao, Ippudo, a ramen chain, also started selling them in their New York branch. Masashi Hirata, executive chef of Ippudo New York coined the Hirata Bun. Other ramen outlets started selling and calling them the same name. Of note, the ramen chain, Shoryu, in the UK also uses this name.

Final word

Whatever you decide to call these buns, I hope this post has been informative to you.

If you are looking to make your own lotus leaf bun, check out Sam’s (@foodjunkie_uk) recipe post below: