According to legend (and Wikipedia) banh bao—known in China as baozi, pao, or bakpao—was invented by Chinese scholar Zhuge Liang, around the third century CE. Widely considered as a snack (or a meal, to some extent), banh bao is very popular in Vietnam, almost as much as banh mi, because they are widely available at anytime of the day or night and can be eaten on-the-go.
Banh bao come in various variations and are normally steamed (looking like a large dumpling). They can also be baked. Banh bao come with a huge arrays of fillings depending on the region. Variations can include barbecued pork, Chinese sausage, salted eggs, vegetables and curry. The fillings are the key.
For a popular Saigonese version of banh bao, you have to take a mixture of ground pork, mushrooms or wood ear fungus, Chinese sausage and quail eggs to form a meatball. This is wrapped by a lightly sweetened flour dumpling and steamed to form a white exterior.
Banh bao xa xiu (or char siu bao) is another popular version, filled with barbecue flavoured char siu pork. This version is most often served as dim sum, either steamed or baked. Baked versions arrive brown and beautifully glazed. This is one of my favourites.
Banh bao kim sa is not your typical banh bao. It is filled with a soft custard-like filling made with milk, salted egg and egg yolks. You can easily identify them by the yellow-coloured bun.
There are many banh bao types and varieties sold throughout the city, but there are two places I know that are head and shoulders above the rest:
1. Banh Bao Ca Can
213 Nguyen Tri Phuong, D5 – 12pm to 2am
Open since before 1975, this spot is operated by Mr Thang who originated from My Tho. Ca Can was named after his father, Can, and Ca referring to ‘eldest son’. Located corner of Hung Vuong and Nguyen Tri Phuong in District 5, they are also known for their noodles, but their banh bao are legendary.
2. Banh Bao Tho Phat
78 Nguyen Tri Phuong, D5 – 6am to 11pm
Also located on Nguyen Tri Phuong, in the heart of Cho Lon, Tho Phat is strictly for take-away only and is always very busy. Bun hunters can find Tho Phat’s banh bao all over the city, notably in Circle K. Next door, find Baoz Dim Sum, which also belongs to Tho Phat’s owners. Here you can find delicious baked char siu bao.