Vegan cooking made easy with spicy bao buns

The pillowy white dough buns – steamed, not baked – are popular in much of Asia

Spicy tofu bao

Spicy tofu bao


My love for spuds and bread runs deep, so when I first tried the mega-trendy bao buns, it was a bite and a sigh and a “where have you been all my life?” moment. The pillowy, soft white dough buns are steamed rather than baked, and are popular across many Asia food cultures.

I didn’t have them again for a while, until one day I was in the freezer department of an Asian supermarket in London and saw them staring up at me again.

So off I went, researching them on Instagram – where all solid research takes place. I found a few places that had bao buns in stock– most Asian supermarkets will have them – and no sooner did my mouth start watering than my mind started whirring with ideas. If you want to have a go at making them yourself, you will find a recipe in The Irish Times online archive.

I’ve used tofu in the buns here, but with barbecue season fast approaching, you could use a good piece of free-range pork belly, or some marinated chicken thighs for the filling – with a natural fizz or a fruity kombucha to drink alongside.

Every year I try to pick a vegan book to cook from because it expands our repertoire of dishes at Kai, and also challenges us to put a lot of thought into what we are using, and how we are adhering to sustainable work practices.

A few years back we featured a vegan book, Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F**k in our annual Kai Cookbook Club dinner series, and found this stunning recipe in the dessert section. We have modified this recipe to suit my fear of using millet.

It’s not you, millet, it’s me. Millet is a cereal grain (you’ll find it on sale in health food shops) and for years it has been my nemesis. It is not easy to cook; I find it turns into millet mash. I’ve ruined many attempts to make something healthy and delicious with it, but thankfully there was a saviour. In this recipe for a vegan sweet treat, it is toasted and added to other ingredients – no further cooking is required.

When writing about vegan food, it is appropriate to touch on the F word – yes, fermentation. I kill things a lot, everything from house plants to sourdough starters – so simplicity is key for me. This recipe for switchel, a probiotic drink, is really easy, and hard to kill. If you want to do further reading on fermentation, or do a course in it, check out Dearbhla Reynolds, whose book, The Cultured Club, is excellent. She’ll have you burping those jars of goodness in no time.

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Spicy tofu bao

Serves four
400g firm pressed tofu, sliced
100ml soya sauce
80g gochujang (Korean chilli paste – you’ll find it in Asian supermarkets)
40g freshly grated ginger
20g of garlic
150g rice flour
Oil for frying
8 bao buns
200g radishes
200ml Kewpie mayo
8 large slices of cucumber
100g peanut rayu condiment (optional; this is available from some Asian supermarkets and many good delis – if you can’t get it use satay sauce)

Mix the soya sauce, gochujang, ginger and garlic in a bowl. Add the sliced tofu to the mix. Leave to marinate for about 24 hours in order to get a more intense flavour.

Use this time as an opportunity to defrost the bao buns in the fridge overnight.

Roll the tofu in rice flour. Add frying oil to the pan and heat on medium heat. Add the tofu and shallow fry until crispy.

Slightly steam the bao buns until they are soft and warm.

Dress your bao by stuffing it like a little burger and adding the radishes, mayo, cucumber and peanut rayu condiment, if you can source it, otherwise use a satay sauce. My favourite, widely available in Asian stores, is called Jimmy’s).


Toasted millet ‘buck eyes’

Makes 12
85g millet, uncooked
85g peanut butter (I like the Nutshed brand)
15g coconut sugar
10ml vanilla extract
1tbs spelt flour
250g dark chocolate
1tsp coconut oil

Heat a dry pan and toast the millet.

Mix everything else in a food processor. Stir the toasted millet into the mix and set aside in the fridge for an hour. Once chilled, take out of fridge and roll into bite-sized balls.

Meanwhile, place a mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water and melt the dark chocolate with the coconut oil. Once melted, dip your balls in, leaving one side exposed. Pop back in the fridge for another 20 minutes to set.


Ginger switchel

Serves four
20g fresh ginger
1l filtered water
60ml raw cider vinegar
2-3tbs raw honey
2tsp lemon juice
1 apple, peel of
1tbs demerara sugar

Boil the ginger in the water. Allow the mix to cool, then add the vinegar and honey and stir.

Loosely cover with clingfilm or a cloth and leave out overnight.

The next morning, strain off the ginger (make sure to squeeze any flavour out of the ginger), then add the lemon juice and stir. Leave out of the fridge to ferment for two or three nights.

Serve diluted with sparkling water, and apple peels to garnish.

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