WHILE other countries have their burgers, shawarma and tacos, Taiwan has its gua bao or pork belly buns. Although it has origins in Fujian, China, the gua bao is more commonly associated with the “land of a thousand delicious small eats” where it is a largely local favorite and a staple street food.
In Quanzhou, Fujian’s largest metropolitan region, gua baos are called rou jia bao (meat between buns) or hu yao shi (tiger bites lion) and often eaten to celebrate the marrying off of a daughter. In Taiwan, it is also known as hu yao zhu (tiger bites pig).
The traditional gua bao has a hearty filling of braised pork belly, the unctuousness of which is offset by its accoutrements of pickled vegetables, coriander and peanut powder which also keeps excess marinade from seeping into the bun and making it mushy. In a perfect bite, the tender pork belly meets the texture of the pickled greens and ground peanuts, and it’s salty, sweet, sour, pungent and fresh, all in one go.
The gua bao didn’t reach the culinary consciousness of foodies outside Asia until Korean American chef David Chang introduced it in his Momofuku restaurant group in 2004. With its globalization, came its evolution. The fluffy, lotus leaf buns are now filled with every kind of meat and seafood, and dressed with all sorts of ingredients and sauces.
If you have yet to savor these fold-over buns, these Cebuano brands will prove that although gua baos are usually eaten as an appetizer, they can easily be the main event.
This bao house offers a good number of Asian flavors so customers will be spoiled for choice: Chinese braised belly, char siu, Japanese katsu, Korean fried chicken (KFC), Thai grilled chicken and Vietnamese chicken. The buns at Fat Papa’s are able to hold well despite them soaking up the sauce and the juices from the meat. You’ll love the rich braised belly, with both lean and fatty parts packed with flavor. The chicken baos don’t disappoint either, whether it’s the crunchy, twice-fried KFC you’re in the mood for, or the lighter, more refreshing Thai- and Vietnamese-seasoned cuts.
At Barrio Chino, the bao variants are an amalgam of the traditional and the modern, as well as of Chinese and Latin American culinary influences. Here, the buns are pillowy and the names are clever: “Swim Shady” (crispy fried fish fillet, slightly tart Colombian roasted tomato salsa, shredded cabbage and homemade honey-citrus aji salad dressing) and “Au-bao-gine” (its vegetarian bao with eggplant, sweet and spicy, full-bodied soy garlic sauce, aji sauce and fresh coriander). But it’s definitely the “Peking Pig” for us: braised, pan-grilled pork belly with that subtle char, glazed with a hoisin-Sriracha sauce and topped with pickled cucumber, scallions and coriander.
X Marks the Spot
The chef at X Marks the Spot is an expert in Asian fusion, so the baos here will no doubt hit the spot. The shrimp bao has plump and succulent shrimp with housemade Uruguay chimichurri. The chicken bao uses deep-fried chicken strips in a creamy chipotle sauce. For those who want a non-meat option, there’s the fried tofu bao with its chili garlic sauce.