Roads & Kingdoms | Chinese 'Bao'


Photo: Eileen Guo / R&K

I sink my teeth into the doughy flesh of the steamed bun and bite through to the ground pork inside, flavored simply but heavily with ginger and salt. The filled bun was just removed from the steamer, and is almost painfully hot, just the way I like it. When it comes down to burning my mouth versus waiting to consume my favorite Chinese breakfast food, baozi, I’ll choose taste over comfort/safety any day.

It’s day eight of my month-long trip to China, where much of my family lives, and I am finally satisfying my cravings for the steamed buns filled with fragrant, ground meat. I am in the tourist hotspot of Old Town Lijiang, enjoying a few days of solo travel before rejoining my family for the Chinese Spring Festival, and it is the first time that I am making my own decisions about breakfast. I make for the nearest open restaurant, ensure that baozi is on the menu, and sit down for a bamboo basket of the pastries, which I pair with fresh soy milk.

It’s a common breakfast combination for busy Chinese person. A decade earlier, studying Mandarin at a local university, each morning I rushed out of the house and biked to campus, stopping for the just-cooked buns and a plastic cup of soy milk from one of the vendors at street intersections along the way. I would balance on my bike with one hand while eating the buns from the other, arriving on campus satiated, content and, usually, without getting into any bike or serious scalding accidents. I knew that my family would not approve—either of the one-handed biking or my distracted eating of street foods—but besides the flavors, living as an adult in the country of my early childhood and having the freedom to choose my Chinese food experiences was part of the appeal.

At home, we ate steamed buns without filling, mantou, or the longer boiled dumplings usually associated with Chinese food, but my family rarely made baozi. During my visits, my relatives sometimes purchased them from a grocery store or a street vendor to appease my well-known cravings, but I know that they didn’t approve. In China, food safety is a constant concern and like many middle-class Chinese, they are suspicious of all foods cooked outside of the home, especially street food, and particularly ground meats of undeterminable origin. Baozi, literally and figuratively, is all of these things.

Besides, street foods are fast food, and to eat fast food is to suggest that I do not have family cooking for me at home. So out of respect for their generous hosting and concern for my gut safety, I limit my baozi consumption to when I am on my own.

In solitude, as on this morning in Lijiang, I brave the mystery meat and scalding contents for the flavor and texture that I have come to associate with adulthood in China.