It's fast approaching hand-held snack season despite everything the weather says. And no food, bar the taco, has captured our hearts and hands in recent years as much as Taiwan's gua bao – the mitt-like fold of fluffy steamed bread that became a global phenomenon courtesy of David Chang's Momofuku pork buns.
Sometimes excellently referred to as "tiger bites pig" for the pincer grip of the bun around pork, iterations have filled every local Japanese, Chinese and Korean juke joint around. Still, few chefs have gained as much celebrity for their buns as May Chow. The ex-Yardbird chef and style icon has taken Hong Kong by storm with her drunken chicken buns and burger-like PBJ dessert at Little Bao. They are the Lune croissants of Hong Kong, and they're heading to Melbourne, where they will star in a beer-and-bao-fuelled Olympic ping pong battle at Supernormal on Wednesday, October 26 to kick off The Age Good Food Month.
In celebration, we've rounded up Melbourne's top contenders to face Chow's buns down.
A bao a day… Melbourne's best bao
This lunch magnet – an offshoot of the little family-run eatery that could, Shandong Mama – is a powerhouse of flavour packed hand-made dishes from its potstickers to its marbled tea eggs. The bao here is a rich, juicy mess of bun-swaddled slow-cooked pork and coriander. Low on mayo, high on mess.
5 Centre Place, Melbourne, 0421 461 898
Supernormal's twice-cooked duck bao is reaching lobster roll level in cult status and we count ourselves among its fans. All hail that soft, fragrant meat and shattery skin, countered by lightly pickled cucumbers. But come October 26 we can't wait to line it up beside the drunken chicken and PBJ ice-cream baos from May Chow of Hong Kong's Little Bao.
Uncle is the mod-Vietnamese hero St Kilda East never knew it needed until it arrived to light up lives in 2013. For us, it's as much about the space they create for bun-eating – especially that bamboo-girt rooftop – as it is about the profusion of handheld snacks. Special note here to the chicken tenderloin bao with chilli and pickles, which are now the biggest-selling item on the menu.
188 Carlisle Street, St Kilda, 03 9041 2668, unclestkilda.com.au.
It's the DIY aspect that does it here, where a sticky beef short rib arrives for shredding and stuffing in your Michelin Man mitt. Or maybe we're just control freaks who like to micro-manage that essential ratio of Kewpie mayo and pickles to meat.
66a Chapel Street, Windsor, 03 9525 2774, tokyotina.com.au
If you're of the school of thought that everything tastes better in a bun, this is your home. Credit where it's due here, too, for the extra keen focus on vegan options for the non-pork-inclined. The silken tofu gua bao with roasted peanuts, pickled mustard greens and sweet sauce has a lot of fans for good reason.
4/19-37 A'Beckett Street, Melbourne, wonderbaokitchen.com.au
Take this as a friendly reminder that Neil Perry's Spice Temple does bang up yum cha and as part of that, places white-cut chicken twixt the cheeks of a steamed bun.
Crown Towers Melbourne, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank, 03 8679 1888, rockpool.com/spicetemplemelbourne
The Bao Bros
This duo offers bao of no fixed abode, most recently taking over kitchens at the likes of Footscray's Littlefoot and the Hotel Lincoln. But when you can find them, their gua bao stuffed with fried chicken or thick measures of roast duck are to be reckoned with.
Stay abreast of their movements online at thebaobros.com.au
Another moveable feast, Bao Stop is currently pumping out bao at the Sydney Night Noodle Markets to an ever-growing line and it's Melbourne's turn from November 10. This year, they're also bringing Peking duck-loaded fries with them.
Supernormal and May Chow are teaming up for a bao and beer pong party. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Want more bao? Check out these events at The Age Good Food Month
For one night only, Supernormal is transforming into a giant table tennis battle arena where actual olympians will flex their guns, and cocktails, icy beers, May Chow bao and Supernormal food will flow free. Get one hand on a paddle and the other around PBJ ice cream bao, truffle fries and yakitori. Party hard, pong late. 6pm-10pm Wednesday, October 26. Tickets are $95 including all food and several drink tokens. See goodfoodmonth.com
Night Noodle Markets
The country's biggest hawker markets return to Birrarung Marr on November 10 for a record 18 nights of noodles, bao and more. goodfoodmonth.com