Hawker Heritage: Pau (Steamed Buns)

Good morning to you all! I’m back again.

I’m on a roll.. 3 posts in 2 days? That’s a rarity.
Studying must be taking a toll on me :O Well, blogging about food is the perfect way for me to destress.

Since today is National Day in Singapore, its the perfect day to launch yet another series, Hawker Heritage, where I will share more about a hawker food so that you can learn about a unique Singaporean dish you have never heard of. This will be a fun read if you’re a foreigner, or.. if you’re reading this in the future, and this dish has been lost, at least you’ll get to know about it. Even if you are a local, it’ll be interesting to read about the history of a certain dish for a change! Basically, what I’m saying is…I’m sure this will be an enjoyable read for everyone. 😛

I think its extremely sad that we are losing our hawker heritage. With so many young adults only looking at office jobs, there is no one to take over our hawkers. That being said, it is not easy teaching someone else the tricks of the trade, especially is the hawker has been cooking for 30 years. Its difficult to pass on the “wok hei” to a new cook.. after so many years, the hawkers have developed some kind of intuition of when the food has been perfectly cooked. Its no longer a recipe, or a job, its become second nature to them.

Sure, you may say that there are up and coming young hawkers who are setting up stalls here and there, but these few are far from enough to replace the older generation of hawkers. I shudder at the thought of losing the delicious and affordable hawker food to commercially produced food, over-priced restaurants and… *gulp* run-of-the-mill food courts. The concepts in food courts may be similar to hawker centres, but there is absolutely no way the ambience and the food can match up to our mouthwatering hawker food.

If we ever lose our hawker heritage, (please let that not be so), may this series serve as a reminder of what we had, and what we will always love.

To the parents out there, do not belittle family gathering or the making of traditional recipes.. these little things define our childhood. Who doesn’t love popiah parties, making love-letters, or crafting delicious bak zhang with your family and friends? And to the children out there, be willing to learn and try new things, find out as much as you can about Singapore’s traditional food, and pass on the tradition to your kids. It would pain me to see Singapore lose our hawker heritage like how we are losing our ability to speak in dialects.

Enough of the gloom doom, let’s start today’s post with one of my favorite foods, PAU. (or Bao, Baozi)

Pau or chinese steamed buns, are buns filled with all kinds of fillings, and steamed in a huge wooden steamer. Nowadays, most people use the modern steamers which look like metal drawers. The fillings range from meat fillings, like barbequed pork (charsiew), to vegetable fillings, either turnips or mixed shredded veggies, to dessert like buns filled with red bean paste, yam paste or custard. There are so many variations, I couldn’t possibly list them all out!

photo 2 (67)
This is a Tau Sar pau (red bean paste). As you can see, the fluffy white bun encases a sweet red bean filling. This was one of the best red bean paus I had.. you can even see the chunks of red bean, and a slight tinge of redness. Some commercially made paus barely resemble red beans, the filling looks more like a smooth black paste, and is overly sweetened.

photo 1 (68)My favorite part of eating a pau is tearing it in half and watching the steam rise out from the centre of your pau. Piping hot is the way to go! Everyone has their favorite pau, and my favorites would be yam pau, lian yong pau (lotus paste), and vegetable pau. Unfortunately, since I love these paus too much, I don’t have any photos of them, since they somehow find their way into my mouth way too quickly. All I have is the poorly taken photo of an average looking vegetable pau below.

photo 5 (38)For the health conscious, vegetable paus would appeal to you. Filled solely with cooked vegetables, you can get one of your five-a-day! There are even wholemeal options to healthify it even more. Since these buns are steamed, they can be considered relatively healthy too.

Paus were first created about 2000 years ago, believed to have been invented as a portable meal for soldiers in third century A.D, Now, paus are a delicacy enjoyed by all, in China, Another story goes that in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, mantou was also said to be associated with the famous strategist Zhu Ge Liang, 诸葛亮, who supposedly made ritual offerings of mantou stuffed with meat (meat pau) in place of human sacrifice. (Mantou is a steamed bun without any filling)

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This variation is the Charsiew Pau (barbequed pork), and is loved by many for its slightly sweet taste which compliments the charred meaty goodness. The best pau would have a thin casing and loads of filling, such that it is almost spilling out.

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Pau are commonly eaten for breakfast, and can be found at dimsum restaurants. These buns are about the size of a tennis ball, so two of them would make a substantial breakfast.

For the bigger eaters, there are even Da Paus (big pau) which are much larger, and are filled with meat. I love these paus as they are a meal in itself, sometimes even coming with an egg! The juices from the meat soak into the bun, without making the entire bun become soggy. Even Bruce Lee loved some good pau.

brucelee as touted by Johor Bahru Hand made Pau, who also sells giant paus (inspired by Amy Yip’s.. uhm.. assets).

photo 2 (66)

Everybody raves over Liu Sha Pau (salted egg yolk custard bun), which is fun to eat cause of the way the filling flows like a river of golden sand. Never bite straight into this or you risk burning your throat as the hot lava goodness rushes down. Honestly, I’m not too sure why everybody loves this, it was too rich for me, but as a foodie, I had to get some to see what the hype was all about.

photo 1 (67)

Some of the good pau stalls in Singapore include TIong Bahru Pau, Teck Kee Pau, Commonwealth Pau and Tanjong Rhu Pau. Sadly, a common trend I have noticed is the shrinking of the paus, and the rise in prices. Some stalls even try to add their own twist, such as adding Lor Mai Kai (glutinous rice and meat) into a steamed bun casing.. which was not very popular, probably cause it was a carbo-overload. Call me old fashioned, but I still love the simple, traditional flavours the best.

You can find paus at most drink/snack/dimsum stalls in the food courts, or you could travel specially down to the above mentioned stalls to taste the real deal. If you’re lazy, the supermarket sells frozen paus which you can just steam at home. Of course, commercialised paus can’t beat the handmade versions, but they are a close enough substitute given their convenience.

As I end off, I just want to leave you with this visual:

Imagine holding a fluffy, steaming hot bun in your hand… you gently tear the bun into half, watching the steam rise from the centre of the bun, as the smell of the sweet sweet red bean wafts into your nose. Oh, nostalgia. You bring the bun to your mouth, and take a bite. The soft bun gives way to the generous red bean filling.. so smooth, so flavorful, and perfectly sweet. Before you know it, the sweet paste has made its way to your stomach, before you know it, you’re reaching for another, and another.. Savory? Sweet? They all stand no chance. 

Have I made you crave pau yet? 😉 I think I’ll go and steam some for breakfast.

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3 thoughts on “Hawker Heritage: Pau (Steamed Buns)

  1. I love paus! In Japan, they sell these humungous paus in Chinatown. I don’t know how they possibly got to be that big, but they’re quite overwhelming.

    It’s so sad that Singapore is losing its hawker culture. These days, street food is growing in the States (with food trucks), and luckily, in Japan, many recipes are passed down to other enthusiasts. The Japanese take so much pride in their soul food like ramen, yakitori, and okonomiyaki, tempura, etc that it’s not rare to find a restaurant that’s been open for over 100-200 years.

    1. I have always wanted to go to Japan, cause they seem to take so much pride in their food (and everything that they do) The food culture in Japan sounds so amazing.

      Ooh wow, have you ever tried those humongous paus? There’s a stall in Singapore that sells paus that are FOUR TIMES the normal size.

      1. lol! I tried one of the giant ones one time when I visited Japan for the first time. It was as big as my face! Mostly bread though so way too filling! 🙂

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