The Gua Bao was never the biggest hit among the Xiaochi or small eats in Taiwan. After getting introduced in the West back in 2004 by David Chang, it grew in popularity through Eddie Huang’s Baohaus concept and his Fresh of the Boat series on Vice. Now that this little fella took over the street food scene some years ago, we wonder what the future have in store for the Gua Bao.
What is a Gua Bao?
Originating from Fuzhou, the Gua Bao (also known as Hirata buns by the Japanese due to Japan’s colonial occupation of Taiwan) was adopted into Taiwanese culture – becoming a street food staple in the country. These tiny, doughy, fluffy buns usually come served with stewed meat filling – like red-cooked pork belly – accompanied by pickled mustard, coriander, and ground peanuts with sugar.
Taiwan has plenty of Hokkien and Hakka traditions embedded in its culture, and the Gua Bao with its pork stewed in soy sauce, is very reminiscent of hong bak, a typical Hokkien dish. Another historical fact is how the garnish – crushed peanuts and sugar – comes from two of the most important crops in Taiwan.
What this equates to is a tasty little thing packing a whole range of different flavors. Needless to say, like other popular foods, what you actually choose to fill the Bao with depends only on your own imagination. There are so many versions to choose from: chicken, fried fish, eggs or stewed beef, vegetarian, and even sweet versions with fruits or jams.
David Chang and Eddie Huang: It all started in NYC
The Gua Bao owes its international fame to the visionary David Chang, who caused a sensation back in 2004 when he began serving the Gua smeared with hoisin sauce and stuffed with pork belly, cucumbers and scallions at Ssam Bar in the East Village.
Few years later in the Lower East Side, brothers Evan and Eddie Huang opened Baohaus in 2009, introducing a minimal menu based on their taiwanese culinary heritage. What set the place on the map, and also helped the Gua Bao gain its cult status, where Eddie Huang’s Fresh Of The Boat series on Vice, named after his autobiographical book.
This gave the Gua Bao a boost from being a simple dish known in Asia, to its cult-following in the West through street food vendors, renamed by many as the Taiwanese hamburger. Then, like a lot of North American trends, Europe followed some years after. After making the leap over the Atlantic, many restaurants have decided to serve the Gua Bao in its original form.
But like many foreign foods that has amassed huge popularity in the West, Gua Bao began to lose its original name along the way. Somewhere down the line, the “Gua” disappeared leaving the “Bao” on its own. Like food blogger Mandy Lee (Lady And Pups) addressed in 2013:
(…)it would be equally as vague to call baguette “bread” or beer “alcohol”, because bao literally just means “to wrap” or “to hold” which usually describes an array of things with stuffing wrapped inside a white dough.
Today, if you say Bao, people know what you mean. If you say Gua Bao, people might get confused. Does popularity come at a price – forgotten identity? Is it considered too conservative to care if its original name is preserved?
The Future of the Gua Bao
The breakout into mainstream street food culture gave the bao a cult following. As a result, we’ve seen many variations come to fruition.
When a foreign dish arrives to a new city, it usually brings along an immigrant population that is equally welcomed. This helps its food culture, increasing its degree of visibility. But few Taiwanese people stand behind the Gau Bao (noticeably in Europe), resulting in few people associating this Taiwanese specialty with its birthplace.
You don’t need to be Vietnamese to know where the Pho comes from, but a Gua Bao served outside of Taiwan needs an extra title for it to be recognized. The result? Asian tacos, Bao burgers, and Taiwanese hamburgers.
In the end, it is all about adapting and knowing your market demographic, and it sure has been interesting to see how the Gua Bao has evolved since its Western introduction in 2004. But now that we are some years into this trend, it’s only right to ask ourselves: Where will the Bao go next?