The non-halal’s version of steamed buns with coloured dots on the centre to indicate the flavour.

Steamed buns, or ‘bao’ have come a long way ever since its first inception during the era of the Three Kingdoms in 225. Since then, bao have undergone evolution, not only in China, but also in Asian countries such as Malaysia.

Fluffy, delicious, cheap

Steamed buns or ‘baos’ are one of the cheapest ways to fill your tummy. It is good over a cup of warm coffee on breakfast and could last till lunchtime. Up to date, there are many variations of flavour, from meat to vegetables, even butter and kaya.

In Malaysia, steamed buns are not only enjoyed by the Chinese but also by everyone. Introduced by Chinese immigrants back in the day, steamed buns in Malaysia now can be seen in various forms instead of just the original. The cultural influence in Malaysia helped innovate steamed buns to suit the local taste.

The history of steamed buns in China

Originating from China, steamed buns were created by the Imperial Chancellor of the Shu state, Zhuge Liang from the era of the Three Kingdoms. It happened during his journey back from his Southern Campaign (War of Pacification) after he successfully quashed the rebellions of the local governors in the Nanzhong region (present-day Yunnan, Guizhou and southern Sichuan) and intrusions by ‘Nanman’ (Southern Barbarians) in the year 225.

Two dots for the barbecued-flavoured pork (char sio pau) bun!

Together with his army, they were marching home when they met a river which was impossible to cross. The locals informed him that to cross, he must sacrifice 50 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river deity.

Zhuge Liang, known to be a wise strategist, did not want any further bloodshed. Instead of sacrificing his men, he ordered for 50 buns that were made to look like heads to be thrown into the river.

Pleased by it, the deity granted a safe passage for Zhuge Liang and his army. Due to the shape of the buns, it was named Mantou (barbarian’s head), in celebration of the famous victory that Zhuge had masterminded over the barbarian rebels.

Soon after, the ‘mantou’ was filled with meats and vegetables to give it extra taste. As the popularity of ‘mantou’ began to rise in early China, different parts of the countries started to introduce their own variety of ‘mantou’.

The cultural influence in Malaysia

Traditionally, baos are spherical in shape, with a flat base. It is steamed with parchment paper to avoid the buns from sticking with each other.

Over the centuries — after the Chinese immigrants had introduced steamed buns to the locals — bao has since evolved according to cultural influences.

Since Malaysia is a country of many races, steamed buns here also came in the ‘halal’ variety where our Malay friends can be seen steaming buns with either chicken curry or black pepper chicken fillings, among many others.

With the variety of food in Malaysia, steamed buns have also been merged with local taste, such as the ‘kaya bao’ and ‘butter bao’. As years passed, bakers have gotten creative with these steamed buns. It is now common to find colourful steamed buns made to resemble cartoon characters, animal shapes and faces to appeal to the younger generation.

The most common non-halal baos available that we can find in Malaysia are the barbecue-flavoured pork bun (char sio bao), meat filling with broth bun (xiao long bao), bean paste bun (dao sha bao), custard bun (nai huang bao), minced pork bun (bak bao) and the big bun (da bao) that usually contains meat with egg.

At eateries, the steamed buns are usually coloured with dots at the centre top to indicate the fillings. Red usually means barbecue-flavoured pork while green indicates minced pork. However, different bakers have different colour indications.

Zhuge Liang’s ‘mantou’ can also be seen in Malaysia, however the bun is no longer in the same shape as the original. Instead, it is shaped like a flatbread folded into two. The Chinese in Malaysia adopted the concept of eating ‘mantou’ with braised pork during celebration dinners. If not, ‘mantou’ can also be eaten own its own with a spread of butter.

Meanwhile, at halal eateries, steamed buns come in either chicken or beef fillings. There are also chocolate, kaya, butter and peanut butter fillings. Over the years, steamed buns have grown to be a multi-cultural delicacy in Malaysia enjoyed by many for its simplicity and cheap price.