When deciding whether to take the well-beaten path or the road less travelled, cult London Taiwanese restaurant BAO chose the latter. Founded in 2012 by husband and wife duo Shing Tat Chung and Erchen Chang, who met studying at Slade School of Fine Art, along with Chung's sister Wai Ting, it may have seemed like a bad idea to start a food-stall-turned-restaurant with a background in design and no formal chef training. But fast forward eleven years, BAO is one of London's most lauded establishments, a four-strong force of restaurants with the backing of restaurant group JKS (think Lyle's, Sabor and Gymkhana) and near permanent queues out its doors – proving quite the contrary.
In fact, the duo's artistic sensibilities have been a crucial asset to the success of BAO. Its strong and eclectic visual identity sets it apart from its peers in a fiercely competitive market where London restaurants must strive to get noticed. Take, for example, the iconic BAO 'lonely man' logo designed by Erchen – a graphic that has become instantly recognisable to Londoners. Or their proclivity for presenting food with a food stylist's vision, making each plate look as good as it tastes. Even each restaurant has a distinct aesthetic shaped by its purpose – with the paired-back, food-focused interiors of the Soho branch to cater for a fast, constant rotation of diners, compared to the KTV room, highball machine-equipped Borough restaurant reminiscent of Japan's late-night grill culture.
That said, to place BAO's popularity exclusively on its branding and aesthetic would be doing it a disservice – because the food has an equal part to play. All three have close ties to food – the Chung siblings through their family's Cantonese restaurant in Nottingham and Erchen through her childhood growing up surrounded by a love of eating and cooking. This, combined with their food-fuelled travels around Taiwan through Taipei and Yilan in the north, and Kaohsiung, Tainan and Pingtung in the south, have ensured the food at BAO is thoughtful, soulful and downright delicious. And don't just take out word for it – BAO's Soho outpost has been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand for eight consecutive years since opening.
When deciding on an iconic dish from BAO to include in this series Icons, the decision was easy to make because there is one menu item that completely defines the restaurant – the bao. It features on the logo, the restaurant is named after it, and it embodies the purpose of BAO in bringing the famous guo bao of Taiwan to the streets of London.
The menu at BAO is designed to be shared dim sum style, so this interpretation of gua bao is much smaller than one you see in Taiwan to make room for other delights on the menu like the pig blood cake, mapo aubergine, trotter nuggets and Horlick buns.
This pork bao is perfectly formed, with a clean 1cm gap between the edge of the bun and the edge of the meat. It is filled with a twelve-hour braised pork that yields no resistance and melts in your mouth with the cloud like bao, the flavours of the ferments and peanut powder lingering on your tongue. In this recipe, the pork is braised for three hours at a higher temperature, but it still produces a great braise.
The advice from the masters at BAO is not to skip the fermented mustard greens – these are a crucial component of the dish, and you'll need to prepare them at least two weeks in advance. If you don't have the time or desire to ferment your own, you can buy them from Asian supermarkets in vacuum-packed bags.