And why should it be the eat treat to indulge in this season

By Madhulika Dash
Let’s face it; a few years ago, the term Bao (a word incidentally spelt with italics in dictionary) would have sounded Greek to the food world – unless of course you have eaten extensively in South Asia, especially the street food. But thanks to the Silk Route initially and then of course the restaurant business, bao started losing its discreet identity. Although much believed it to be a cousin of momos.

The appearance adding more to the confusion. Steamed, fluffy baos debut in the World Eat Streets was more as a soft stuffed bun or as a side to an amazing stew. Served halved at times, it soon picked the name, Cut Bread. After all, it did everything that a bread would: soak those wonderful flavours in a pillow-like soft bite.

Those were the decade of 80s and 90s. While Bao made a slow and steady in road into some of the Chinese places, its brethren were still limited to their own place of origin. And one such bao iteration was the Gau Bao or as now commonly known as Taiwanese Hamburger or the Tiger Claw Bun thanks to its unique claim-like shape.

The credit to popularise (and glamourize) this 3 rd century, Fuzhou- born open bun in America goes to Chef David Chang, who not only picked it as his muse during one of his culinary trails to Taiwan, but also gave the slightly bumpy shaped bun, its pearl-like finish and flair. Gau Bao debuted with Chef Chang’s new menu in 2004 in Momofuku. And since has inspired many to play around this street cousin of the royal Chinese Bao.

In India, it was Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sriracha, who first popularised Gau Bao as a Steamed Open Bun as a signature dish of his ‘time travel’ menu in the early 2009. Since then, this addictive Taiwanese street food has been an integral part of the Chef Seth’s Pan Asian repertoire, albeit each time presented with a new twist.

The fascinating aspect of Gao Bau or Taiwanese Hamburgers, says Chef Seth, “is that it is extremely versatile as a dish, much like the European bun or Mumbai pao. It takes on a wide variety of flavours from across different food culture. And since it is shaped like a clam shell and is white colour makes for a brilliant presentation as well.”

The trick is getting it right however, adds Chef Seth. Much like its European cousin, making the Gau bao includes the process of making the fluffy bao from a mix of all-purpose flower, yeast, milk, unsalted butter, salt and a bit of sugar.

Once proofed, which takes as little as 20-30 minutes where the dough rises, the baos are shaped and steamed. A well-done bao is one that is fluffy with little airpockets, evenly cooked and behaves like a nice sponge when pushed with finger, says Chef Seth, who uses banana or pandan leaf to create the clam shape of the bun.

Once the bao is ready, then the trick to make a delicious bite is getting the other elements right. A good way to design a Gau Bao, says the Pan Asian specialist, “is to think it as a deconstructed ramen bowl. Texture is the most important.”

Traditionally, Gau Bao is served with a sweet-spiced sticky pork belly with mustard greens, coriander and a nice serving of peanut chutney made with ground peanut powder and sugar. In fact, adds Chef Seth, “across the world you would find many versions of the Gau Bao including one that is sweet in nature and has seasonal fruit. But in every version peanut powder is a must. It is an integral part of it.”

But outside Taiwan, the famous street food has as many versions as the American hamburgers itself.

Like in Sriracha, says Chef Seth, “the special Gau Bao menu run for the World Cup celebrates the flavours from across the world, and for every palate: from the delicious Bean sprouts, pickled daikon, lettuce and spiced roasted peanuts to the Sloppy Szechuan Pan Seared Chicken served with coleslaw Kimchi, pickled daikon, lettuce, spiced roasted peanuts garnished with home-style Szechuan Mayo, and even the traditional BBQ Pork belly served with pineapple slaw, pickled daikon, lettuce and spiced roasted peanuts. And a special one for the adventurous diners made with Caramelized Hunan Tofu, toasted sesame, coleslaw Kimchi, spiced roasted peanuts matched with a dash of Szechuan Mayo.

Of course, says the chef, “we also make a sriracha-avocado-shrimp one on request and even a dessert versions with seasonal fruits for the big sweet toothers.”

Little wonder Lonely Planet called it the secret foodie wonderland.