Baos with 奶奶
By Rebecca Zhong
Growing up, I spent my winters watching 奶奶(grandma) make Baos. 奶奶 was a small women, only made smaller over the years as she began to cockroach over herself. Barely seeing over the counter, she would grab her foot stool which successfully added a few centimetres as she continued with her kitchen ventures. She would use her entire body weight as she kneaded the dough with care. You could feel her warmth, even when a damp breeze smelling of rain and wet grass would blow through our kitchen windows.
During the 2020 lockdowns I tried to recreate 奶奶 winter Baos. While edible, my Baos were far from the mouthwatering morsels I remembered. Google was quick to remind me that making Baos was a timely process, calling for both patience and precision. But I never saw 奶奶 pick up a measuring cup in the kitchen, her winter Bao’s never demanded perfection. The dough was crumbly and stiff at first and then suddenly, smooth and slick. When the mixture collected into a ball, 奶奶 would put the dough to sleep. She would coat it lightly in oil, and rest it under the sun for two hours. Her Baos never required full attention, it gave her room to make a fresh cup of tea and get lost in her own singing.
Baos are the perfect snack. They’re pillowy to the touch, with a surprise hiding in the centre. When paired with a cup of tea, your stomach instantly feels warm and loved. When I first moved away from home, I would stock up on packs of pre made Baos. Baos are easy to heat up, and make for a much better breakfast alternative than the stale toast that I always saw my flatmates eating.
In Chinese the word for “family” ( jia) is the same as the word for “home.” Home is a central part of family in Chinese culture. Growing up, my parents, grandma, aunties, cousins and siblings all lived together, a common practice seen in Chinese families. We all looked after one another, especially 奶奶. She would make dozens of Baos for us all to eat throughout the week, and us kids would help her out. Our responsibilities varied depending on our respective ages. Being the youngest, I was assigned the role of the ‘scooper’ in our makeshift assembly line, haphazardly scooping filling into each bun. Years later I would be promoted to a ‘folder.’ My small and clumsy hands would copy the movements of 奶奶 whose fingers danced nimbly as they folded and pinched the Baos together. We would always make more Baos than we could eat, freezing the extras for later.
In the last few months I have re-introduced 奶奶 Sunday Baos. Instead of making them in a full house, I now make them by myself in the confined space of my 35m2 apartment. The idea of self-care has never resonated with me. But putting the time aside every week to make something savory and delicious for future me to enjoy remains a joyful act. On July evenings when I’m too tired to muster up the energy to make anything grand, I will pull out two Baos from the freezer and heat them up alongside a bowl of turnip soup. Each bite serves as a reminder of home and comfort.