Bao Bar is not like any kerb-side food outlet I’ve visited before. Its six-seater bar is more like an atmospheric timber-clad room than a food van. From this small but perfectly formed space, Bao serves unforgettable Tawainese xiao chi or small eats.
The highlight is the gua bao, steamed buns filled with pork belly, homemade pickles, peanut shavings and coriander from which they take their name. It’s all a far cry from the gnarly American burgers and pneumatic hot dogs that first caused a commotion on British kerb sides.
It takes obsessive love I’ve rarely witnessed to do this. The trio who make up Bao – Wai-Ting Chung, 29, her brother Shing Tat Chung, 27, and his girlfriend Er Chen Chang, 24 – have a hand in everything.
They built the intricately designed space themselves and make as many of the elements that make up their dishes as they can; from the gua bao dough to the cured meat, pickles and soya milk (yes, soya milk!) they use. They’ve been set up for only a year but, with such commitment, it’s not a surprise they’ve already won acclaim – and a loyal army of fans.
I last saw them taking the stage to win the street-food category at The Young British Foodie awards last September (see box, below). And that’s just one of many accolades they took home last year.
So how have they become the stars of the street-food scene so quickly? Ting and Shing grew up in Nottingham – their parents were born in Hong Kong – while Er is originally from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei City.
‘We grew up in restaurants, our parents ran a Cantonese one,’ explains Ting. Although she says their folks ‘weren’t too happy’ when they first went into food. Touching on the cultural difference between the two generations, Shing adds: ‘We sometimes send them pictures of the queues and they can’t understand it. It’s a very different approach. Their restaurant has a lot of dishes, ours has very few.’
The aforementioned cloud-light gua bao buns are the reason for those queues. There’s also chicken marinated in soya milk then twice fried and pomelo crunch, a salad of pomelo (a crisp citrus fruit) carrot, daikon (white radish), red onion, crispy wontons and crunchy fried vermicelli.
‘The loveliest thing is having regulars or people who have looked at our food, felt nervous but given it a go,’ says Shing. ‘Then they come back twice in a day.’
Humility reigns with these three –despite the job satisfaction, the operation requires long hours and the pressure is intense. They’re up at dawn and work late into the night.
‘We’re either doing bun days or there is prep or selling,’ says Shing.
The trio still make all the buns in Ting’s small kitchen. Ting looks at the other two and laughs: ‘We worked every day last year, didn’t we? I think we had one week off.’
It’s been relentless. They spent the previous year scrupulously ‘testing’ the recipes, alongside their day jobs, by way of a supper club.
‘I think we’re the only people in Britain who make the gua bao buns ourselves, not at a bakery,’ says Shing. ‘But I reckon the bun is 50 per cent of it and so many factors affect it – the humidity, the ratios.’
Bao still tweaks the bun formula according to the weather. It’s obsessive. It’s mad. I love it.
The three are all ex-art students, which explains the attention to detail. Shing studied design interactions at the Royal College of Art, Ting fashion in Nottingham and Er fine art at the Slade School of Fine Art. Arty aphorisms pop up as we chat. ‘We create dining experiences, not gimmicky but subtle,’ says Er.
Suddenly Shing says, bright-eyed, excited: ‘We’re looking at premises now.’ A restaurant? ‘Yes in central London but we want a secluded spot.’
So what’s on the cards? Taiwan’s xiaochi, bijou street-food dishes… ‘We’ve been making three-cup frog legs that was popular at the supperclub,’ says Er. Taiwanese chicken steak is another dish they are experimenting with. ‘In Taiwan, they butterfly it and it ends up large enough to cover your face,’ says Shing. ‘It’s a work in progress.’
There are also plans for a shaved ice project. Shing whips out photos of Taiwanese dishes of mango and red beans with condensed milk and shaved ice. ‘But we need a machine like a pillar drill,’ he adds gleefully. Their enthusiasm is infectious. ‘It’s amazing how few people know about Taiwanese food,’ says Shing.
Before the trio started Bao, they travelled into Taiwan’s mountains to learn bao making. Next month, they’ll lead a Bao Guided Taiwan Trip (www.opentrips.co.uk).
‘Tourism hasn’t really taken off in Taiwan,’ says Shing. ‘But people should know about it.’
Could you be the next Young British Foodie?
Whether they’re rustling up coffee from a cart, curing meat or putting vegetables centre stage, Young British Foodies are defining a new culture of food and drink in Britain. The YBF awards were co-founded by LifeStyle food editor Chloe Scott to recognise grass-roots talent.
At Tate Britain later this year, the YBF Awards 2014 will celebrate the next generation of culinary talent. Will you be one of the winners?
How to enter
The judges, an army of Britain’s food and drink greats, are looking for new craftspeople across the UK. Anyone can enter, old, young – just not established. The categories cover alcohol and cocktails, chefs, meat and charcuterie, street-food, baking, vegetables, food-writing and experiential dining.
The first round is a cinch – you just need to submit 500 words explaining why you are passionate about food and drink, your experience and history.
If you believe you’ve got the YBF spirit, enter this year’s awards at www.the-ybfs.com