I’m embarrassed to admit that if you’d asked me what a steamed bun was any time before 1998, I’d have been thinking dinner roll in a bath tub. Okay, that’s a bit of exaggeration. I was a new Vancouver transplant from the prairies, but I wasn’t an idiot. I would have answered a bun that was cooked with steam. Ding, ding! One point for the flatlander! However, there’s a little more to these warm little bundles of happiness. Steamed buns are, in fact, a Chinese mainstay and have been around for a kagillion years. Known also Baozi (meaning wrapped up) they’re something that obviously gets better with age.
I tried my first steamed bun at New Town Bakery in Vancouver’s Chinatown. New to the neighbourhood, I was walking around exploring the busy streets when I came across a wooden cut-out of a Big Boy-like character holding a platter of steamed buns with “Chinese Hamburgers” written in brackets. Chinese hamburgers? Sounded kind of gross. But I’m a sucker for a cute sign.
Even though it was in the middle of Chinatown and most of the signage was in Chinese, the orange booths and ghetto diner decor smacked of my hometown, Winnipeg. I felt right at home. The waitress was patient while I hummed and hawed my way through the list of different buns. At her suggestion, I went with the obvious beginners choice — the BBQ pork bun. I forked over my $2, pocketed my change and dug in. The sweet dough gave way to piping hot BBQ pork cooked just right. Not too fatty, not too lean. After a not-so-ladylike display of chomping and finger-licking, I dug around for some more change and bought another. This time I ordered a chicken bun. Very, very delicious even though I had to struggle to finish it. Apparently meat-filled doughballs are rib-stickers. Go figure. Sticky ribs aside, I was sold. AND I was stuffed full for under $5.
Since those heady days of the late nineties, I’ve tried many different varieties of steamed buns from many different places, including a truly incredible pork bun with water chestnuts in Montreal’s Chinatown, but New Town is still my favourite. I’ve since moved out of Chinatown and away from the original location, but I’m happy to report that I live only blocks away from one of New Town’s 4 locations. There’s no booths and no waitress — but there’s the buns. Oh, and the egg tarts. Seriously. You HAVE to try the egg tarts. And the coconut buns…