The Prodigal Bun

I discovered Tao-Yuan during my sophomore year of college, and it quickly became my favorite restaurant. In fact, it opened a door to exploring and obsessing over Asian cuisine, which I never thought would be possible in my predominantly white college town. I had just returned from a semester abroad in Southeast Asia where I fell in love with steamed pork buns, made with char sui barbecued pork and a fluffy bao. The buns are native to China, but I saw them in many parts of Vietnam and Cambodia.

 

My first taste was during a walk with a friend through the streets of Hanoi. We were pulled into a small food shop by the incredible wafting smell of barbecued pork, in spite of the intense heat and humidity. As if a conduit of the universe, she decided we would order a bounty of pork buns for lunch. I was in such a dream-like haze that I must have simply nodded in agreement. I remember walking out of that shop with a piping hot paper bag. We slowly paced through the saffron street, frozen in place after the first bite. It was euphoric, something akin to a child trying pizza for the first time but with the consciousness of an adult who thought the magic of discovery was behind them. The soft bao reminded me of my father’s wonder bread, but with a delicate bounce and buttery savoriness that I couldn’t understand. They pulled apart in our hands like clouds. The meat was intensely savory, tender as an Italian ragu, with the flavor of fragrant 5-spice, hoisin, the smoke of a centuries-old inferno of a barbecue grill, and the sweetness of buttery fat. We looked at each other like we had discovered a dangerous secret. Something that would torture us for the rest of our lives, confined to the culinary cardboard boxes of our home towns. 

 

Yet, just months later, I stepped into Tao-Yuan for the first time. It was winter in New England. The warmth and scent of slowly cooked meats and charred vegetables, umami sauces and delicate dumpling doughs, washed over me the same way the untitled store in Vietnam had. I approached my table suspiciously, like the familiarity of the scent was too good to be true. Too sudden. After scanning the beautiful wood tables and porcelain sauce dishes, I thought back to those pork buns with a dreamy sadness. Then, I read the menu. Most of it was still unfamiliar. I regret not soaking up more knowledge when I was in Asia. Then, I saw the line “Grandma Tang’s Roasted Pork Buns.” My eyes widened with anticipation. 

 

When our food arrived, our server placed a stacked bamboo steamer in the middle of the table, which radiated with warmth, steam leaking through the cracks. That’s when I identified the same smell and the magic of that day in Vietnam. They were round, almost shiny, slightly translucent yellow-ish orbs of dough, the size of my palm. Each bun lifted from the steamer effortlessly with a bottom of non-stick paper. That was part of the ritual, the one thing I had forgotten - gently peeling paper off the bottom like dressing a carcass. Then, with the steaming buns warming my fingertips, I took a bite.

 

It was the exact same delicate dough, slightly snappy with the most fluffy, cotton-like texture. It had the buttery, milky white bread taste, which quickly mixed with the roasted pork. The filling was even more pungent and robust than I remembered. I could taste the richness, the fat of the braised meat. The warm, cinnamon, anise spice with a hint of salt and a generous coating of velvety barbecue sauce. Not the bottled American stuff, but the deep, complex roasted flavor of a master’s homemade recipe. One that varies slightly between households. 

 

By the time I had finished nourishing my body with the vividness of that street corner in Vietnam, the steamer was being carried away. Not only was I overwhelmed with the joy of revisiting that transcendent first meal, but I was inspired. Ecstatic, imagining all of the flavors I had yet to experience. Flavors that I. a broke college kid, didn’t need to travel the world to find.

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