In a corner at the back of a city-centre cafe on a recent Monday evening, Nikki Wong places a small parcel, wrapped in kitchen towel, on the table.
Inside is a perfectly round, white bao – or steamed bun – with a smiling face and rosy cheeks. It is a little warm, and soft and springy. The custard inside tastes a little of coconut, and it’s not too sweet.
Wong’s parents are originally from Hong Kong, so she grew up eating traditional Chinese food, she says. “Now whenever I go to Chinese restaurants with friends, it reminds me of my childhood.”
“What really pushed me into the baos was, there were a good few parents that came to the stall, and they were seeing if my sweets were gluten-free or vegan or dairy-free, egg-free, something like that,” Wong says. For now, the baos are vegan, but not yet gluten-free.
Many would be so happy to find something that their kids with intolerances could eat that wasn’t full of sugar.
“They go, ‘Can I have that?’ and the mom says, ‘Yes, you can have whatever you want!'” and it’s the first time they can choose, instead of having just one option, says Wong.
What People Miss
Wong says that when she worked at the Chinese New Year celebrations at the Red Cow Asia Market, people frequently asked her whether the baos contained animal products. To Wong’s own surprise, they did.
“So I started thinking, what can I make that people would miss? People who become vegan, or can’t have milk, or eggs? – and custard was one of them,” she says.
So she decided to begin experimenting with ingredients to create her own vegan custard for baos.
“The first time I did it, it was with no faces, but then thought, these are too good to not show how happy I am with the baos!” she says, laughing.
The next one was cheese, she says. “People miss cheese.” So how to make vegan cheese that’s gooey when it melts?
“I was experimenting with that a bit, and the good thing is, that a lot of the ingredients are Asian ingredients,” she says, like tapioca starch, or glutinous rice flour, like in chewy mochi.
The result was a herby cheese flavour, which was also a hit with customers, she says.
“I’m developing recipes at the moment for TwoBytes, to see what people are missing, and to incorporate it into the bao culture,” she says.
Apart from baos, TwoBytes features matcha cookies, and tapioca-coconut “chews”.
“There are so many Asian sweets that people don’t know about,” says Wong. She worries people might be put off by unusual ingredients, so she tries to mix them with more familiar ones: like mochi with Reese’s Pieces.
At the moment, she’s getting requests for gluten-free baos, which is proving difficult. Baos are steamed, so there’s no crust to hold their shape, and non-wheat flours tend to shrink, she says. But she’s working on it.
The Art of Baos
The important thing to remember is to be patient, says Wong, because if you take a peek when the bao is steaming, you’ll have a flat bao, a dense bao, or a bao that’s “not as good as it could be”.
Once it’s done, the best thing to do is leave it to cool in the steamer, she says. “And, the secret is, if you leave it in the freezer, and then re-steam it, it’s actually nicer than it was the first time,” says Wong. “When you re-steam it, it’s fluffier – I think that’s what happens.”
Some places try to make baos more tempting to people unfamiliar with them by turning them into what she calls “taco-baos”, when the bun is folder in half, with a visible filling spilling out.
When people can see what’s inside, they’re more willing to try it, she says.
“If you think about it, baos are supposed to be mess-free. If you have a taco-bao, it’s quite messy,” she says. “Taco-baos are not very traditional.”
Wong keeps her baos closed, the fillings safely tucked away, but dresses up the usually plain-white outside with a smiley face to make them appeal to kids.
“You’re giving some feeling to the bao. Like, ‘If you eat me, I’m going to make you happy,'” she says, laughing.
As of 10 June, the Fusion Sundays market is no longer running at Newmarket, and Wong hopes to move her stall in July to Stoneybatter Farmer’s Market at Pender’s Yard.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 27 June at 11am. An earlier version said Nikki Wong worked at the Asia Market on Drury Street, rather than Red Cow. Apologies.]