Gua bao (steamed buns)

Auckland diners are becoming very familiar with pillowy steamed white dough prised open and stuffed with flavoursome pork and other fillings – the treat known as gua bao.

This is different from a Chinese steamed bun with the filling enclosed…. With the Taiwanese gua bao the filling is added once the plain dough comes out of the bamboo steamer, sometimes put together at the table by the lucky eater.

Taiwanese-style gua bao has the nickname 'tiger bites pig'
Taiwanese-style gua bao has the nickname ‘tiger bites pig’

It is the flagship dish of popular Auckland eatery Chinoiserie in Mt Albert, which produces an endless evening stream of gua bao (they call them ‘milk buns’) filled with pork, Sichuan chicken, tofu, beef and lamb in their delightful and kitschy ex-suburban Chinese takeaway.

It was Korean-American chef David Chang of Momofuku/Lucky Peach fame who made these buns famous in the US. Momofuku in New York call them ‘pork belly buns’: a slab of pork belly slipped into one of these pillows and topped with hoisin sauce, pickles, cucumber and spring onions. Chang says he basically took the flavours of Peking duck pancakes… and swapped out the pancakes for buns and the duck for pork… it’s a combination that people still queue for 10 years on.

The classic Taiwanese gua bao combination has braised pork, peanut powder (made of crushed peanuts and rock sugar – two of Taiwan’s most important crops), along with coriander and pickled mustard greens.

In northern China wheat products are more prevalent than rice, and generally this is where wheat-based buns or dumplings are from (bao is any kind of bun/dumpling). But it was in the cultural slosh-pot of Taiwan that the gua bao was born.

Cathy Erway explains in her book The Food of Taiwan that the most significant migration to the island was in the late 1940s after the Communists ousted the Kuomintang from China. The Kuomintang set up military villages in Taiwan attempting to run a ‘Republic of China’ from the island; more than one million people came from China in just a couple of years. These villages became melting-pots of cuisine from all over China, as well as drawing on influences from indigenous people, crops and from earlier migrants. In the crammed, hastily-built villages, families not only had to live close but, with limited facilities, needed to share the cooking. It was here that bread from the north met southern Fujian (Hokkien) or Hunan-style braised pork from the south, topped with local herbs and peanuts.

According to Robyn Eckhardt on the Wall Street Journal blog, at end-of-the-year celebrations in Taiwan  employers give their staff gua bao – with its overflowing filling resembling a purse stuffed with money. Gua bao has a nickname: hu yao zhu, or ‘Tiger Bites Pig’.

Where to eat gua bao in Auckland 

  • Chinoiserie, 4 Owairaka Ave
  • A few kilometres down Mt Albert Road from Chinoiserie, the Auckland suburb of Royal Oak is home to another standout Asian-inspired restaurant, the Filipino-influenced Nanam (126 Symonds St, Royal Oak). They have a variant of gua bao (they call it tacopao) with small beetroot pink buns served with braised pork.
  • Judge Bao, mobile vendors, also make a super version with free range pork and quality ingredients. They can be found at Ponsonby Street Food Collective



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