A pork bun is a classic Chinese type of dim sum or dumpling. It is most often associated with Cantonese cuisine and is called cha siu baau. The buns may also be called baozi, especially if they are filled with ingredients besides pork. The typical pork bun is, as the name would suggest, stuffed with pork in hoisin or barbecue sauce, and the filling is often colored dark brown or very red.
The more traditional way to cook a pork bun is by steaming it. This makes the yeast risen flour dough white in color. The exterior is sometimes cakey and dense, and when not steamed long enough, the interior can taste undercooked and doughy. Another method, which is popular in some North American Chinese restaurants, is to bake the pork buns. With a little glaze like egg wash, they become a deep golden brown, and often taste more fully cooked than the steamed variety.
Which type you’ll get in a Chinese restaurant largely depends upon the restaurant’s preference. Steamed pork buns seem more common since dim sum became popular. However if you live in an area with a good Chinese bakery, often present in large cities with significant Chinese American presence, you may find both types, with baked buns just as likely to be available as steamed ones.
Though some recipes for pork buns may utilize rice flour, in the US, wheat flour is more common. Leavened dough is rolled out into rounds, stuffed with the barbecued pork, and then pinched on top so the filling doesn’t leak out. If the buns are baked, the pinched top usually becomes the bottom so the bun has a round top. When served hot, as is usual, pork bun filling can be extremely hot, so you should be careful as you take your first few bites.
You don’t have to keep to the familiar pork if you’d prefer something else. You can use shredded or finely chopped chicken instead. This is common in the Philippines where a pork bun may be called a siopao, instead. Not only is chicken popular, but siopao may be stuffed with shrimp, or ground beef. Each version of siapao may have a name that reflects changes in ingredients.
The pork bun has also inspired Hawaiian food. In Hawaii, you may see manapua on the menu instead of pork buns or cha siu baau. You’re likely to find these steamed instead of baked. Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines also make use of this bun, again, more often steamed than baked, with a variety of ingredients used to create the center.