THE renaissance of the Fremantle Markets includes the arrival of myriad hip Asian food places.
What the Bao is the most recent, specialising in bao, Taiwan’s signature snack food and the west’s newest fad.
Literally meaning “to hold”, bao traditionally consists of braised pork belly, pickled cabbage, and crushed candied peanuts, tucked inside a little white steamed bun. Nowadays you can get bao with every filling under the sun, as hipster chefs reinvent this Asiatic slider.
It seemed an appropriate lunch choice, given one of my friends had just returned from two weeks in Taiwan: I’d hoped she could put these bao to the test.
We bought six bao — they knock $4 off for the bulk buy — and some lotus chips ($5), before fighting for space at the long, narrow tables that furnish the markets’ dining area.
The cartwheel-shaped lotus chips were novel, but tasted like hell-crispy pub chips. Salty and dry, they could’ve used some dipping sauce or a beer or three.
We tried the variety of bao fillings on offer, including the veggie ($7), Hong Kong char sui, Japanese panko fried chicken, Taiwanese gua, Korean bulgogi (all $8), and Singapore soft shelled crab ($10). My worldly friend was pleased the steamed buns weren’t too sweet, and approved of the authenticity and presentation.
The veggie bao was filled with salad, perked up by some tangy, sweet pickled paw paw, fried shallots, and enough chilli to make me wonder if my mouth was bleeding. However, it lacked a “feature” filling — a vegetarian’s classic conundrum — leaving me a little sad.
Our Taiwan traveller enjoyed the braised pork belly in the gua bao, though most of her experiences in Taiwan featured pulled pork.
The crab bao was lightly battered, with the mild oceanic taste offset by the umami of fried shallots. $10 is very reasonable for soft-shelled crab in any guise so two claws up.
The Korean bulgogi emerged as my other friend’s favourite, with thin beef slices seasoned sweet and sour. She felt a lot of the other bao were hitting her over the head with flavours, and appreciated its demure nature. She found the wasabi mayo in the Japanese bao pretty overpowering, but enjoyed the moist, lightly battered chicken after extracting it from the bun.
We passed around the char sui, and though the intensity of the plummy marinade and abundant peanuts was good at first, nobody got through more than a few rich bites.
Topping it off we couldn’t go past the matcha dessert bao ($7). This ice-cream sandwich was a laugh-a-minute messy experience, taking us a while to figure out how to eat it. We resorted to scooping up the delicious green tea ice cream and red bean jam topping, deploying the bun, the roasted black sesame wafer, and the matcha pokki sticks. The flavours were right up my alley, balancing sweetness with roastiness, creamy with crunchy.
This careful balance was met across the menu, and I’ve no doubt I’ll find myself back at What the Bao again.
by JESSICA COCKERILL