Somewhere around 2011, Mumbai discovered the cupcake. What was really just cake and frosting in a not-even-so-new shape was suddenly everywhere – topped with delicate cream cheese on the shelves of fancy new patisseries, crowned with lurid buttercream on the display windows of old local bakeries. And of all cupcakes, red velvet was the most venerated – lauded for its mysterious crimson hue, extolled for its velvetiness. Tell an impassioned red velvet fan that it’s just boring old sponge cake with a dash of cocoa and a smidge of artificial food colouring – or worse, beet juice – and you’ll shatter their hopes and dreams.
In 2013, it was the cronut, born one fateful night after a donut and croissant had a drink too many and really did not think things through. An import from New York’s Dominique Ansel Bakery, the cronut was replicated by every pastry chef in the city worth their meringue – from Theobroma’s crowd-pleasing version to the one at Ellipsis that would cost a week’s groceries. But maida layered with butter and then deep fried in grapeseed oil turned out to be a bit much even for the hardened arteries of Mumbai’s carb-on-carb-in-carb, ahem samosa pao, lovers. The cronut, thankfully, didn’t last long.
But just when you thought Mumbai had bucked its food fad ways, in came the bao and turned the city’s broadening culinary horizons into a single-minded frenzy once again.
There’s nothing new about pillowy steamed buns filled with sweet-savoury, meaty odds and ends. The Chinese have been making them since the third century CE, in form of buns that look rather like momos, but with a thick, leavened wrapper. The baos we’ve come to know, however, are unlike the Chinese baozi. The taco-shaped open baos have little to do with the Three Kingdoms period in China, and almost everything to do with a man named David Chang.
For the uninitiated, Chang is the reigning culinary rockstar who, when he is not frequenting TV shows, runs the Momofuku restaurant group. So popular are his restaurants that the race to get reservations at his 12-seater Momofuku Ko in New York broke the internet in 2008. But perhaps the one dish Chang is most associated with is the steamed pork bun, which appeared on the menu of the Momofuku Noodle Bar back in 2004.
Joining the bandwagon
Now, more than a decade after Chang put the open bao on the map, Mumbai is making a desperate attempt to make up for lost time. And yes, Delhi squarely beat us to it. While a few restaurants in Mumbai have served baos for a couple of years, everybody else and their grandfather is dishing them out now. Upscale “modern American” (sidenote: what is that?) eateries to the most basic of the Chindian takeout joints, the fluffy gooey sandwich cousin graces every second menu. Then there are restaurants dedicated solely to the bao – two more of them opened here in the last month.
Some of the city’s bao offerings are admittedly delicious. The char siu version – filled with barbecued pork – is perhaps the bao’s answer to red velvet cupcake, but somewhat less of a con job. Colaba’s Ellipsis and Bau Haus Co., and Bandra’s Fatty Bao all make excellent versions of it. But then there are the less sophisticated ones – 145 Kala Ghoda in Fort makes one with a tired butter chicken filling, the ones by the Busago chain are enthusiastically filled to the point of having too much going on, and the dime-a-dozen “wok meal” joints have started filling their monstrosities with what they know best – garlic, soy sauce, grease and more garlic.
Siddharth Somaiya, a New York chef who came to the city to start the Bao Haus Co., says of the trend, “There’s always a new carbohydrate in town that everyone’s fascinated by. For Mumbai right now, it’s the bao – in fact, it’s not just Mumbai, but every big metro in the world has a bao restaurant. It’s like when the taco or pizza came and became global phenomena. With the bao, it remains to be seen whether it will replace a previous favourite or perhaps carve a niche for itself.”
Fashionable foods come and go like anything else. But the thing about fashionable is that once we lose sight of what makes something great, we’re just as gullible as the entire generations of couples who believe diamond rings are some sort of time-honoured romantic tradition (they’re not). A well-constructed bao is a wonderful thing, and several places in the city make them well. These are restaurants and chefs who have spent time and energy learning to perfect the pliable dough, who have put thought into every savoury filling and pickled garnish and sweet glaze.
Unfortunately, for every wonderfully succulent coconut prawn bao, there is the congealed chilli chicken version, from restaurants that jump on the bandwagon and exploit the trend because we let them. When we start thinking that slopping makhani gravy into the sole of a shoe is a remarkable idea, it’s a sign that we’ve been had by the industry. That they can sell just about anything, and we will mindlessly consume it.
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