The first time I tried these pillowy delights I had prepared myself for disappointment – I couldn’t imagine that these little cloud-like pockets could be as buoyant and satisfying to eat as they looked. How happy I was to be wrong. These soft and chewy buns are everything you want them to be; light and squishy and packed full of flavour. Like biting into a tempur mattress but in the best way possible.
Bao originate in China and the term encompasses a whole range of steamed buns of different shapes, sizes and fillings. This particular folded version, which we most commonly think of as bao in the UK, is known as gua bao, and hails from the Fujian province and would traditionally contain pork belly. My version is definitely not traditional; for one thing the meat is replaced with a marinaded smoked tofu, which is salty, smokey, charred and packed with umami flavours all without containing a trace of pig. And as well as some zingy and crunchy slaw, the whole thing is slathered in kimchi mayo, because everyone likes a bit of Korean-inspired pan-Asian fusion. Regardless of your dietary persuasion, one thing you will not be missing out on here is flavour. Or texture. Or a deep sense of satisfaction and well-being, probably.
There are a few different elements involved in creating these buns but I promise you it is worth the effort. You should be able to get all of a the ingredients at larger supermarkets. You can buy ready-made kimchi (check to see if it is vegan as it can contain shrimp or fish sauce), or you can make it yourself, and would you know I have a really easy kimchi recipe that would be ideal. Kimchi can take a few days to ferment, and up to two weeks in the winter, so if you want to go fully home-made you’ll want to start well in advance! I always have a jar of kimchi the fridge because it is delicious and I never know when an urgent need for these buns might come over me.
Aside from making your own kimchi the first thing you’ll need to do is make the dough for the bao. This involves dissolving yeast and a pinch of sugar in warm water and non-dairy milk, and leaving until frothy, while measuring out the other ingredients; flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Add the yeasty liquid and mix with your hands until you have a rough dough, then knead for 6–8 minutes until the dough is lovely and smooth. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to prove until doubled in size. This should take about 90 minutes, but could be less in very hot weather or longer in very cold.
Once doubled in size, knead the dough on a floured surface for a minute to remove all of the air, then split the dough in half. Roll the first half into a sausage shape and cut into six pieces, then roll each piece into a ball. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a slightly elongated circle, about 1cm thick. Brush with a little toasted sesame oil (or any neutral flavoured oil) and fold in half over a chop-stick, straw, or other similarly sized cylindrical object. The oil prevents the two halves of the bun sticking together, and I find that using chop-stick to fold the bun allows a little more space for filling after the bao has been steamed. Place each folded bun on a square of baking paper, and repeat with the second half of dough.
Cover the bao with a tea towel or proving bag and leave to prove for another 30 minutes until they’re starting to puff up. If you’ve made them a little in advance, you can put them straight in the fridge after shaping for up to two hours, then take them out of the fridge for 30 minutes before steaming.
During this second prove, you can make a start on the fillings. Chop your smoked tofu into batons approx. 1–2 cm thick (I use Tofoo brand which is widely available in the UK). Mix a little sesame oil (I use whatever I have left over from brushing the bao) with a couple of tablespoons of soya sauce and a little sugar, and add the tofu, ensuring it’s all coated. Leave to marinade for 30 minutes, turning occasionally so the tofu sucks up the marinade evenly.
For the slaw, chop all of the ingredients as finely as you can. You could use a julienne peeler or food processor if you prefer. I like to add a little chilli but this is optional – the kimchi mayo will have a kick and there’s always the option of adding vast quantities of sriracha if you’re all about the spice. Mix everything together in a bowl along with some toasted sesame oil, lime juice, and soya sauce, then season to taste and sprinkle over a few sesame seeds.
The kimchi mayo is almost embarrassingly straight forward. Put your kimchi in a sieve over a bowl and use a spoon to press some of a liquid out. Then use a high-speed blender, stick blender or food processor to blend with the vegan mayonnaise until smooth.
By this point your bao should be starting to puff up and be ready for steaming. Bamboo steamers work brilliantly and are inexpensive, but if you already have a metal steamer that will work just as well. Once the water has boiled in the base of your steamer, add the bao on their individual squares of parchment, ensuring they have enough room to expand. In my metal steamer I can comfortably fit three on each layer, so can cook all the buns in two batches. After eight minutes the buns should bounce back when you press them, if not leave them for another minute. Then transfer to a cooling rack and steam your second batch.
While the buns are steaming, put a frying pan over a medium heat with a tablespoon of oil and once hot, fry the tofu until it’s a deep golden brown. A couple of minutes on each side should do it. Transfer to some kitchen paper until you’re ready to assemble.
It’s entirely up to you how you construct your bao, but bear in mind you have a lot to pack into a small space. I would suggest a little dribble of kimchi mayo, followed by one or two sticks of tofu. Cram some slaw down the side, drizzle with some more mayo, then go to town on any extras. I recommend a sprinkling of fresh coriander, a spoonful of kimchi, a smattering of crushed peanuts, and a little sploodge of sriracha. You will not regret it.
If you give these I try I would love to hear how you get on! You can comment below, or tag me on the socials: @greedybearbakes.
Vegan Bao with Smoked Tofu and Kimchi Mayo
Soft and buoyant steamed buns packed with marinaded smoked tofu, crunchy slaw, and spicy kimchi mayo
Vegan, Nut-free option
For the bao:
- 1 tsp dried yeast
- 130ml (½ cup) lukewarm water
- 100 ml (⅓ cup + 1 tbsp) non-dairy milk (I use oat milk)
- 20g (5 tsp) caster sugar
- 400g (3¼ cups) plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil (or any neutral tasting oil)
For the tofu:
- 285g (10oz) smoked tofu (I use Tofoo, and you could also use plain tofu if you can’t find smoked)
- 2 tbsp soya sauce
- 2 tsp soft light brown sugar (or light muscavado or caster)
- 1 tbsp neutral oil for frying
For the slaw:
- 200g (2½ cups) red cabbage
- 2 carrots (approx 200g)
- 3 spring onions
- 1 red chilli, deseeded (optional)
- 10g (½ cup) fresh coriander
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- juice of 1 lime
- 2 tsp soya sauce
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
For the kimchi mayo:
- 60g kimchi, drained
- 90g vegan mayonnaise (I use Hellmann’s)
- A few spoonfuls of kimchi
- Small bunch of fresh coriander
- Handful of salted peanuts, crushed
- Sriracha, or chilli sauce of choice
- Start by making the dough for your bao. Measure out 130ml water and 100ml non-dairy milk into a jug – you can use hot water, or put the jug in a microwave for 30 seconds or so. You want the liquid to be lukewarm but definitely not hot. Add 1 tsp dried yeast and a pinch of the 20g of sugar, whisk, and set aside for 5 minutes until frothy on top. In a large bowl measure out 400g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, ½ tsp salt and the remaining sugar. Mix in the yeast liquid and bring together with your hands to form a dough. Knead for 6–8 minutes until the dough is soft and smooth, then place in an oiled bowl, covered with a damp cloth, and leave to prove until doubled in size, about an hour and a half.
- Once doubled in size, tip the dough onto a floured surface and knead for a minute to remove the air. Split the dough in half, roll the first half into a sausage shape, cut into six pieces, then roll each piece into a ball. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a slightly elongated circle, about 1cm thick. Using a pastry brush, brush one side with a little toasted sesame oil and fold in half over a chop-stick or straw. Remove the stick, place each folded bun on a square of baking paper, and repeat with the second half of dough. Cover with a tea towel or proving bag and leave for another 30 minutes until puffy.
- For the smoked tofu, mix any remaining sesame oil from the bao brushing with 2 tbsp soya sauce and 2 tsp soft brown sugar. Slice your smoked tofu in batons about 1 cm thick and 6–8 cm long, and coat in the marinade. Leave for 30 minutes or so, turning occasionally.
- For the slaw, slice 200g red cabbage, 2 carrots, 3 spring onions and the red chilli as finely as you can (you can use a food processor if you prefer). Roughly chop the coriander and mix everything together in a bowl along with 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil, the juice of 1 lime, and 2 tsp soya sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle over 1 tbsp sesame seeds, if using,
- Measure the kimchi for the kimchi mayo and place in a sieve, squeezing out as much liquid as you can. Using a high-speed blender, food processor or stick blender, blend 60g drained kimchi with 90g vegan mayonnaise until smooth and gloriously pink.
- By this time your bao should have finished their second prove. Boil some water in the base of your steamer, then turn down to a medium heat. Add the buns, ensuring there is enough space for them to expand a little – I had to do two batches with a three tier steamer. Steam the buns for 8 mins – if you press them and they spring back immediately then they’re done. Transfer to a cooling rack and repeat with the remaining buns.
- While the bao are steaming, place a frying pan over a medium heat with 1 tbsp oil. Once hot, add the tofu and fry on each side until dark golden and starting to char in places – 1–2 minutes on each side should do it. Transfer to some kitchen paper.
- Assemble your bao: spread some kimchi mayo in the bottom, then pack with smoked tofu and slaw, drizzle over a little more mayo, then top with with any extras you fancy (I use all of them!).