A Melbourne, London & Hong Kong dessert blog
One is quintessentially Melbourne yet an outpost of Chinese traditionalism; the other globalises the tradition.
Some ubiquitous food items have very interesting stories behind them. For example, the croissant is supposed to symbolise the eating of the Islamic crescent. Tea was apparently discovered by a half-animal divine creature who could see the cleansing effects of tea churning through his transparent stomach. We were once told the story that a great military strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period in ancient China ”invented” the baozi to resemble his soldiers heads (complete with topknot no less) as an offering to appease the spirits. Indeed, the other name for (unfilled) baozi is mantou (lit trans: head)! Bamboo trays steaming with round pillows continue to be a heart-warming sight throughout China. For the record therefore, NY’s Momofuku did not invent the bao…nor did Melbourne’s Golden Fields, and if we read another so-called food writer/lover who believes otherwise…they have their own head wrapped in a bao! In China, for daily, take-away purposes, the da bao overflows a large fist size and is ideal for lunch, while the smaller sized ones are more commonly seen in restaurants and are more appropriate as snacks. Furthermore, the filling of a baozi can point to the origin of it. Northern China is home to plain, unfilled baozi in many shapes, whereas in the South, because of a richer history of agricultural produce, baozi are formed with a myriad of fillings, from pale chicken, pickled vegetables, rice soup, and meatier barbeque pork (char siew) baozi. At yum cha (and sometimes in Chinese restaurants), there may be sweeter bao on offer including: dousha baozi (red bean paste bao), lianrong baozi (white lotus paste bao), zhima bao (sesame paste bao); and naihuang baozi (yellow milk/custard bao). If you visit Malaysia or Singapore, the kaya version is i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e. In just under a month, two specialty bao shops have popped up in Melbourne. The first was WonderBao, located in a gritty, graffiti-ed laneway on the outskirts of the CBD, but just perfectly within reach of budget-minded tertiary students. And then a second specialty bao shop, BaoNow, opened a fortnight ago in another laneway. BaoNow is opposite one of MoMo & Coco’s favourite Melbourne cafes — Hardware Societe (see our previous review here) — and just around the corner from the newly-opened Sydney Malaysian cafe-restaurant stalwart, Mamak (review forthcoming).
Let’s first examine WonderBao which we have also featured in our recent “Guide to Yum Cha Desserts in Melbourne.” Notwithstanding the modern, fashion-forward lime-on-black fit-out, WonderBao is all about tradition. The bao are steamed using piles of of stacked large bamboo trays, an arrangement that reminds us of our travels in China. Evident care has been taken in building the business profile — take-away boxes and paperbags, and the paper underside of the bao are stamped with the WonderBao insignia. It’s a nice touch. Savoury bao at WonderBao ($2.00-$3.20) include an excellent (and lunch-sized) da gua bao with a layered filling of egg, shitake mushroom and chinese sausage; and the somewhat average chinese sausage and bbq pork (the chinese sausage should be sliced up and possibly fried, and there was a low meat ratio and slightly too-sweet sauce in the bbq pork bao). From the Fuzhou province originally (not Taiwan), there are also three evocative renditions of the gua bao at WonderBao ($3.80). Gua bao are mini steamed bun burgers and are similar in appearance to the Shaanxi province’s rou jia mo. However, whereas rou jia mo are usually baked or fried, gua bao are steamed. WonderBao’s interpretation could do with a little more flavour seasoning. Because of the dessert focus of this dessert-only review blog, MoMo & Coco won’t go into much more detail with the savoury baozi. There are two types of sweet baozi at WonderBao. The nai huang bao (egg custard bao) features generous, slightly sweet, creamy, golden egg custard smiling from the centre of a very pillowy mound. It is this baozi that compels return visits from sweet-tooths like your Dessert Correspondents who on occasion, daydream about a single egg custard bao without the necessity of attending a full sit-down yum cha. And at $1.70 for one warm little mound, yes please! The other sweet bao, the taro bao, is smooth with a typical starchy texture and a characteristic, almost bland taste. You can still taste a hint of taro though, which marks this as a good taro bao interpretation.
Let’s now look at BaoNow. Apart from bao, BaoNow has also diversified into san choi bao (lettuce cups) and rice bowls. Savoury baos traipse the globe (or more accurately, the American continent) with fillings such as the bacon cheeseburger, buffalo chicken, bacon and eggs, mexican carnitas ($2.90-$3.50). We’ve sampled the buffalo chicken and mexican carnitas, of which the buffalo chicken is the favourite because of its slight spicy zing. Both features a full centre of drippy, full-bodied sauce within which are swirled small chunks of meat. For sweet baozi, BaoNow offers two types ($2.90). The cheesecake bao is slightly overly sour and a little gritty in consistency, and does not convince us of the compatibility of steamed bread and cheesecake. The nutella bao is more delectable, though the stickiness of the nutella seem to overwhelm the fluffy-ness of the steamed bread after the second bite. We were told by the super-friendly assistant that BaoNow will have a changing bao menu. More reason to visit often!
The opening of two bao specialty shops in less than a month coincides with the launch of the Federal Government’s White Paper of “Australia in the Asian Century.” As always, it is the government who is the last to recognise changing social circumstances/public opinion. Over several visits to both WonderBao and BaoNow, we have witnessesed a wide cross-section of the Melbourne populace embrace these two bao specialty shops. If you are wondering how to distinguish between WonderBao and BaoNow, this is our analysis: whereas WonderBao is all about introducing tradition to the masses, BaoNow’s agenda is to globalise the tradition. It must be noted however that neither WonderBao nor BaoNow are breaking new ground, nor are they without flaws. WonderBao has employed a more appropriate steaming and heat-preserving technique, using the historical tried-and-tested method of bamboo trays. This ensures that while the bao stay warm, they are also desirably fluffier. By contrast, possibly because of being displayed in a glass counter less conducive to letting air out but dripping with precipitation, and also perhaps because of their wetter fillings, BaoNow’s bao tends to be a little soggy on the underside and have a slight surface sheen. WonderBao could increase its seasoning on its gua baos and filling content of the char siew bao. BaoNow could reconsider its sweet bao, but should be commended on its inventive savoury bao menu. In any case, both WonderBao and BaoNow are delightful little specialty shops and perfect for snacks-on-the-go. For sweet-tooths, WonderBao’s nai huang baozi and BaoNow’s seasonally changing bao menu come with our recommendation. Here comes the bao boom!
- Dessert adventure checklist
- Dessert destination: WonderBao, Shop 4 31 A’Beckett St, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000; BaoNow, 119 Hardware St, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- Budget: $.
- Sweet irresistibles: Baozi.
- Must-eat: Custard bao (Wonderbao) and Nutella bao (Baonow)
- The short and sweet story: ne is quintessentially Melbourne yet an outpost of Chinese traditionalism; the other globalises the tradition.