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What Is Siopao?

By Bobbie Fredericks
Updated May 16, 2024
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Siopao is a steamed, meat-filled bun that is a part of traditional Filipino cuisine. It is very similar to, and is probably derived from, smaller Chinese dumplings known as baozi. In general all of these are filled with either pork or beef, and the bun is normally thick and starchy. The Filipino versions are normally intended to be eaten without utensils and can make a whole meal, much like a sandwich; in China, they’re more often served as appetizers, often as dim sum. There are two traditional versions of siopao, namely asado, made with stir-fried and marinated meat strips, and bola-bola, made from sausage and ground meat. Food stalls and casual restaurants throughout Southeast Asia are perhaps the most common places to find buns of all varieties and variations, but they’re also served at Filipino and Chinese restaurants around the world are are usually pretty easy to make at home, too.

Basic Concept

Meat-filled buns are fairly common in many Asian cuisines, in part perhaps because of their versatility and ease of preparation. They’re often a good way to use leftover meat, and the portability of the end product is often really valuable for people with long commutes or who want a quick meal or snack on the go. The buns are always steamed, too, which usually also means that they’re very easy too cook. They’re commonly paired with a range of dipping sauces.

Core Ingredients

There are two main componets to these buns: the meat filling and the doughy exterior. The filling is usually a bit more flexible than the bun itself, though there’s room to experiment and substitute on both sides. Normally, the bun is made from rice or wheat flour, water, and sometimes an additional starch; egg is sometimes included too depending on the recipe. The dough is normally sticky, often to the point of being almost gummy, and is typically very dense.

Cooks pat the dough into a flat round, then scoop a meat mixture — normally pre-cooked, pre-seasoned pork or beef — into the center. The edges are then brought up to the top and sealed. Some cooks are quite artistic with their folding and create intricate scalloped edges, whereas others simply aim to close things up. The finished buns are then arranged into a steaming basket and held over hot water just long enough for the dough to set. Even when perfectly cooked, most buns have a sticky exterior.

Asado Variety

Asado buns are made with pork or beef cooked in soy sauce and seasonings. This variety tends to be the most popular kind, and can be found in the Philippines at both street vendors and restaurants. The meat is always pre-cooked, since the buns aren’t normally steamed for long enough to adequately cook anything raw. Some cooks make meat specifically for the buns, and this often the way street vendors and restaurants operate. At home, though, many cooks use the buns as something of a creative use for leftovers. Beef and pork that has previously been part of another meal can find new life as bun filling. The dough for asado-style buns is almost always made from rice flour.

Bola-Bola Buns

Bola-bola buns are distinguishable based on the meat they use: rather then employing strips or shreds of marinated meat, they’re made with pork and Chinese sausage. The roll itself can also be a bit different, and is often made with wheat flour and sometimes also egg. Egg can give the roll a more golden appearance once steamed.

Chinese Variations

The Chinese version of siopao is called baozi. Baozi is thought to date back to the Three Kingdoms period in China, which lasted from 220 to 265 A.D. According to legend, a military commander known as Zhuge Liang invented this food in the shape of a human head as a religious offering when his troops came down with the plague. This food was originally called mantou, which means flour-head. It is still called this in some parts of Southern China, but it is mostly called baozi now.

According to local lore, the basic baozi idea was brought to the Philippines by an immigrant named Ma Mon Luk. He was poor but had the knowledge of the foods he grew up with, including baozi. Soon he began selling food in the streets. He eventually got a small restaurant and became very popular.

The foods served by Ma Mon Luk eventually became part of Filipino culture. The name siopao translates as "steamed bun," and eventually replaced baozi in common parlance. They are still popularly sold in the streets in the Philippines, and can be found in Chinese and Filipino restaurants in other countries. These buns are commonly part of dim sum cuisine, which are small portions of finger foods served with tea.

Popular Modifications

In northern China, steamed buns are still known as mantou, the original name. They are normally made with wheat flour instead of rice flour. Mantou are not always filled, and may be deep fried and dipped in sweetened condensed milk. Japanese cuisine also features a steamed bun known as nikuman. These are often also made with a pork filling, but differ when it comes to sauces, marinades, and traditional seasonings.

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Discussion Comments
By amysamp — On Sep 03, 2011

@sinbad - I like to read about new foods before I try them...just in case, and from what I can tell rice flour acts like wheat flour but while no one has described what they taste like they always mention that it - tastes different.

So from that non-description description, I might be going out a limb but I would think that the rice flour dough would taste just as you said - more like a spring roll as opposed to white bread because if it acts like wheat flour, the texture would be near the same, so the taste would have be the main difference.

This sounds to me like it would be a great gluten free (GF) recipe since it uses rice flour instead of wheat! Always thinking of my GF friends!

By Sinbad — On Sep 03, 2011

I was at an Asian market one time and I am pretty sure I saw siopao there, as I remember thinking "that reminds me of a Hot Pocket." But because it looked like a Hot Pocket it kind of scared me (too many Hot Pocket mouth burns secondary to most likely user error when cooking it in the microwave).

But now after reading this article I would like to try these, what I will call Asian party pockets (because what better for a party than a easy to eat finger food) because the siopao dough is made from rice flour!

I do not think I have ever had rice flour dough! What does it taste like? I am thinking more spring roll shell versus white bread... am I right?

By golf07 — On Sep 02, 2011

I always enjoy tasting foods from different countries, and ordered some siopao at a restaurant in Chicago. It was a cold, rainy day and the warm, hearty siopao really hit the spot.

I love to cook and try to recreate foods that I have eaten in a restaurant. I looked online for a recipe for siopao, and found many to choose from.

You can be as creative as you want to be with the fillings and I like to add some cheese and water chestnuts to the meat and vegetables I put in the filling.

I think trying a sweet siopao that is filled with custard or fresh strawberry jam would also be very good and may be the next recipe I try.

By SarahSon — On Sep 02, 2011

My sister in law is from the Philippines, and enjoys cooking traditional food from her country. We always benefit when we are invited over for dinner.

The siopao recipe she uses calls for pork, but she usually substitutes chicken for the pork. She also adds eggs to the filling which makes it very hearty.

I enjoy these best when the dough and the filling are warm. I have enjoyed siopao a couple of times since then, but wouldn't want to go to that much effort and make them at home myself.

By animegal — On Sep 01, 2011

The filipino siopao really reminds me a lot of the dumplings I had while I was traveling in South Korea. In Korea they sell mandu, and it is basically a dumpling stuffed with a variety of things, though pork with seasonings, or kimchi are the most popular fillings.

The siopao I had while traveling had pork in it and it immediately made me think of mandu. I am really starting to wonder who started this dumpling madness first. It is an insanely popular snack throughout Asia and you can find it in most countries you visit. I guess it will remain a mystery, so I'll just have to enjoy the resulting tastiness.

By wander — On Aug 31, 2011

I had a chance to try siopao at a Filipino restaurant near my house. I was pretty excited when it opened up because I am always trying out new foods and like to find things to enjoy from different countries.

For myself I found that the asado siopao was savory and I really loved the combination of rich beef with soy sauce and seasonings. I actually dragged a few friends of mine in to try siopao and they all really enjoyed it too.

I think that asado siopao may be worthy of a place on my top ten list of favorite foods. Although, it does remind me a lot of other dumplings I have had in Asia.

By discographer — On Aug 30, 2011

My Filipino friend said that this is really good. I actually saw it in an Asian market, in the frozen section. They had packages of six steamed buns with different fillings. I picked up a packet with roasted pork. These were pre-steamed so I had the option of either microwaving it or steaming it for sixty seconds myself. I steamed them because I figured they would taste better that way. It tasted fine, but I'm sure the fresh kind is much better. This was actual siopao though, not Chinese or Japanese steamed buns.

Is there any difference in taste at all between siopao and the Japanese version?

By fify — On Aug 30, 2011

When I was in the Philippines, I ate a lot of siopao. They are sort of the equivalent of hot dogs in the U.S. Philippines have it as a snack food or junk food. I don't know if it's junk food, I think it's much healthier than my idea of junk food because it's steamed, not fried and is full of meat filling. It's the perfect street food because it's warm, tasty and cheap. I used to love having it on rainy days. I think it became my comfort food.

There are lots of different varieties. I think the chicken and pork siopao are the most popular. From what I remember, vegetarian ones were not that common. There are also sweet ones made with bean paste and other things but I definitely prefer the meat ones.

I have had siopao twice since my visit to the Philippines. Interestingly, both were at Thai restaurants. The Thai version is basically the same, it's just called "salapao" instead of siopao. I've never tried making it at home, I think it would be way too hard.

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