Erchen Chang and brother and sister Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung are responsible for introducing many Londoners to contemporary Taiwanese cooking through the gateway of their steamed buns.
BAO began life as a humble street-food stall before moving to its first semi-permanent location in Netil Market, and the group's sophomore BAO Bar is still open for business today. Bricks-and-mortar sites in Soho, Fitzrovia, and a higher-end offering in the form of Rupert Street's XU, followed, and next on the agenda is BAO Borough—a yakitori-style grill concept with a subterranean karaoke bar and Suntory highball machine that’s set to be the latest stone in the group’s infinity gauntlet.
"Our whole lives were in restaurants," says Wai Ting who, along with brother Shing, grew up working in a number of the Cantonese restaurants that their parents ran in Nottingham. "I used to pot wash from a very young age and Wai Ting used to be at the front of house," adds Shing. "We used to eat our dinners with the staff. It's something that's embedded into our childhood."
The BAO concept they opened together with Shing's wife Erchen is inspired by the xiao che ('small plates') houses of Erchen's native Taiwan; restaurants that specialise in mastering one particular dish. It's an attention to detail they've transported to London, serving cloud-like gua bao to anyone willing to wait in line. And if the queues weren't evidence enough that BAO was doing something pretty special, the near-universal acclaim that's followed certainly is.
Awards and accolades, however, were never part of the BAO blueprint. "It's nice to have and we're very grateful but our goal is to make high-quality food at affordable prices using the best produce that we can," says Shing. "It's about trying to translate the stories of our upbringing and the travel we've done back into our restaurants." Wai Ting, Erchen and Shing have succeeded in getting Londoners to eat pig’s ear, and like it. Put simply, their five dishes reflect a commitment to food that doesn't pull its punches.
Shing: Inspiration for this dish came from the gua bao served in Taiwan. It can obviously be served in lots of different ways but the traditional version usually involves a slab of pork or thickly cut pork belly. The way we wanted to serve it—to better fit the street-food format—was to make it a bit smaller, so that people can taste a lot of different things rather than having a full-on meal. It’s also very sweet in Taiwan. I mean, food generally in Taiwan is quite sweet, so we wanted to tone that down slightly.
Erchen: The biggest adaptation we made is also with the produce. Our pork comes from Philip Warren and Swaledale farm.
Pig's Blood Cake
Wai Ting: This dish has actually become quite iconic for BAO Soho, which sort of makes sense seeing as it's basically like a British black pudding. The dish was inspired by a street-food snack eaten in Taiwan that's almost the size of a brick and usually served on a lollipop stick. We tweaked our recipe because the one in Taiwan has got a higher ratio of rice, which makes it a lot denser and able to stay on top of a lollipop stick. Ours has got a lot more fat and spice in the ratio.
Erchen: We added caramelised onions so that the texture is a bit softer but the fragrance is still very Taiwanese. The way that we cook it makes the flavour really come out. Normally, in Taiwan, they just steam it but we pan fry ours so that you get the crispy crust and the soft inside. The yolk is also soy-cured, so it makes for a really nice sensation when you poke it and the yolk just slowly drapes down the blood cake.
Yellow Chilli Chicken
Shing: One of the biggest differences when we opened Fitzrovia was we started doing a lot of larger dishes. They're called dà chīs, which translates to 'large eats'. This is one of those dishes that we don't sell high volumes of but when people have it, they love it. People often say it’s the best chicken in London. It goes under the radar a bit but the people who are in the know about it will come literally just to eat this dish.
Erchen: We wanted the chicken to be really tender and the lemon juice does just that. Ingredients wise there's chilli, there's aged soy, and chicken fat which adds a very familiar flavour of Taiwanese or Chinese cooking. Keeping the cooking time of the chicken accurate is what keeps it really juicy. Once it’s cooked we let it rest for a bit and then send it off pretty much straight away so there's no chance of it getting dry and both the breast and leg are cooked perfectly.
Erchen: At BAO, it’s all very considered, but it's also very fun in that we take inspiration from everywhere. For XU, we really tried to study and understand Chinese and Taiwanese cooking. In the beginning, we used to have to buy all our taro from Chinatown because that was the only place to get all the Chinese produce. Now, because we've used it for such a long time, our veg supplier has found the right supplier for the large volumes of taro we need. It's a very popular dish and it takes a lot of effort to do. It's kind of crazy. Basically, you need to peel the taro, then you need to steam it, then once it's soft you need to mash it but – because there's so much fibre – you have to pass it through a ricer first. After that, you have to add the flour so it becomes a dough, and once it's become a dough you need to portion it into little balls. Only then can you start actually making the dumplings and putting the filling inside.
Beef meatball with fried egg
Erchen: For Borough we knew that we wanted to have a yakitori and we wanted to grill stuff. The meatball—or tsukune as some people call it—is just like a grilled skewer you would have in yakitori places in Japan, where it's made of chicken, with chicken cartilage inside for a bit of bite. We came back to London after travelling and we were like: 'We want to do that but with a beef flavour.' There’s actually a bit of pig's ear that we mix into it that gives that same cartilage texture. So it's not just soft – it has that snap. We also really liked the idea of serving it with a fried egg. It feels like a very Taiwanese kind of combination. To be honest, it's the sort of thing that would be eaten in a sandwich as breakfast over there. The onion on top cuts through with a sweetness that really works against the savoury flavour and the almost greasy texture of it.