Boom, Boom, Bao

Sir Mix A Lot said it best: "we don't want none unless you've got buns hun." Though he may have been referring to something entirely different, the lyrics ring true for the Taiwanese restaurant-to-be, BAO, whose steamed buns really are something to sing about.

Taking the leap from Hackney's Netil Market to Soho's colourful restaurant community, the BAO trio look likely to liven things up, bringing Taiwanese street food off the streets and into a permanent space. Shing Tat from the BAO trio spoke to SUITCASE about Taiwanese cuisine and its new adventure in Soho.

How did BAO come to be?

The three of us - myself, my partner Erchen and my sister Wai Ting - started Bao in 2013. We travelled around Taiwan eating up everything along the way. My parents have always been in the restaurant business so Wai Ting and I have always had the passion to open up a restaurant. Erchen is from Taiwan, so after our food pilgrimage we were all very excited about Taiwanese food and it became an obsession to bring our excitement about the food to London.

Where do you draw inspiration from when experimenting and creating your menu items?

ST: We frequently travel back to Taiwan to keep us in touch with the food culture. We're also a bit addicted to searching for places that through time perfect their one dish. Whether it's our favourite turkey rice on a road stop in Tainan or a baozi place near the mountains in Yilan. Tradition and processes are very important to us, but creativity and refinement also play a big part. When creating the menu, we have a mix of classics and dishes that are created and inspired, not only by Taiwanese food, but also by food that we were brought up on. Wai Ting and I are from a Cantonese background but we also base some of our menus on English produce.

What drew you to the task of perfecting the steamed bun in London?

I remember vividly the first time we tasted the combination of our classic and we were hooked - the savoury saltiness of the braised pork, with the sourness of the pickles and sweetness of the peanut powder balanced harmoniously. Although, the magic moment came when we were visiting a baozi place near the mountains. It was a large baoz but it was light and soft and it literally felt like there was nothing in my stomach. It was amazing and a definitive point along the journey where we thought, 'right, we have got to try and find a way to reproduce that texture.' Buns aside, in the restaurant we will have a larger selection of dishes. Of course the focus is on baos, but we'll be doing other classic xiaochi (small eats) like pig blood cake or sweet potato chips with plum powder.

What do you think is special about Taiwanese street food compared to other cuisines?

It's a food culture that isn't well represented here. I think there is only around 5-6 Taiwanese restaurants in London. It's quite hard to summarise why a whole cuisine is special, but there are flavour combinations that are classic but unique. A classic one is the combination of peanut powder and coriander and Thai basil infused into soy-based sauces. Taiwan has a lot of Japanese flavour profiles as it was occupied for fifty years, and was also occupied by Portugal and China, so there's a real mixture of flavours coming through.

How would you describe Taiwanese street food culture in Taiwan? How is the food culture in London different?

Taiwanese street food is integral to the culture, with street markets playing a large role in daily lives. Due to more free licensing, you'll find vendors dotted around on every street corner. The street food culture here is more about events with most being paired up with music and drinks - some even charging entrance fees. It's changing though. We are seeing an increase in markets that are integrated into people's daily routines.

Transitioning from a small six seater bar to a full seated restaurant in an area unfamiliar to Taiwanese cuisines is a big step. What is driving you to make such a move?

I don't think that Taiwanese Cuisine being unfamiliar is a hurdle, especially in a city like London. It's our passion and hobby, not only to cook the food we love to eat, but also to create the atmospheres and ambience that represent a type of food or a style of eating. The six seater BAO Bar is a very cosy wooden hut that serves a limited menu and is very special to us. The restaurant represents a different ambience. There's an abundance of creativity in all these processes that makes creating, making, designing and cooking a very rewarding process.

What is your hope in bringing BAO to Soho, the heart of eating out in London?

We want to have fun with our food and bring affordable yet refined and sometimes creative food to a location that is in the centre of it all. We are all very excited to be part of that buzz.

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