The Taiwanese gua bao is a similar street food in which the ingredients are inserted in a folded bao after the flat bun is steamed; gua bao have become popular restaurant items in North America lately; for instance, I ordered them at Bahn Mi Boys in Toronto, where they offer a variety of fusion bao fillings.
For our version, we decided to prepare the steamed bao from scratch and dry-rubbed pork ribs and Chinese pickled vegetables for fillings. As one friend said, ribs in the oven are pretty much “set it and forget it.” Along with the requisite time for pickled vegetables to take on the pickling flavors, there’s plenty of time to dabble in making steamed buns from scratch.
Our sweet and spicy dry rub, inspired by Chinese five spice powder, consisted of: ground clove, cinnamon, whole star anise, fennel seed, dried chili peppers, along with dry rub staples: brown sugar, freshly ground pepper, and kosher salt to taste. All these ingredients were ground together with a mortar and pestle until most of the ingredients were crushed finely, yielding about 1/3 cup of dry rub seasoning.
I used a colander to apply the dry rub evenly (and without large pieces that might be left from the dried chili peppers or star anise), half to each side of a rack of pork ribs, and placed it concave-side down on a foil-covered baking sheet in a 225° F oven for 2 hours, then lowered to 200° F for another 2 hours, (4 hours total) checking and turning occasionally. (If need be, satisfactory results can be gotten in about 3 hours at 250-275° F.)
Next we prepared some Chinese pickled vegetables: matchstick carrot, sliced red onion, sliced cucumber, along with a sliced fresh serrano pepper and some pieces fresh ginger. These were soaked in a brine consisting of approximately half rice vinegar and half water, further flavored with some soy sauce, star anise, sugar, whole black peppercorns and a bit of sake.
The pickled vegetables where refrigerated for a few hours before use.
Next, we prepared the dough for the steamed bao. (My partner is the bread maker; see the sample recipes she provided linked below for details.)
Once rolled-out, the dough pieces were steamed atop cabbage leaves (to prevent sticking), some flat and some folded over, with a bit of oil on the top to prevent the folded ones from sticking closed. We found steaming them (covered) about 10 minutes to be sufficient.
Once the rib rack was cooked, it was cut into individual ribs, with some served as-is and some having the meat stripped from the bone to top or fill the steamed bao with a bit of hoisin sauce and accompanied by a condiment of pickled vegetables.
Both the five spice ribs and gua bao were delicious and we enjoyed making this asian treat from scratch.
The ribs and steamed bao reheat well in the microwave for some quick and easy subsequent meals.
Here are some related recipes that you might helpful if you decide to make gua bao yourself!