#1 – Flesh & Buns
What: Flesh & Buns Restaurant
Where: 41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX
When: Open now!
Jack Graham tells us why...
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” (Exodus, 16)
Thus it was, on the sixth day, that I said to my waitress, “do not bring me forth 2 buns as you suggest, but bring me 4 buns, for it is Thursday.” And luckily she did not question my rationale, but accepted that her generic and misplaced advice had been testing my blind trust. Crestfallen that I had broken the waitress-client covenant, she reluctantly sloughed away to satisfy my insatiable demands. And I prepared them thus. Plum sauce begot crispy duck; miso sauce begot pork belly and apple; some sort of delightful Korean preparation begot marginally overcooked but tasty lamb chops. And then some more pork belly may or may not have been begotten. And it was good. And I thought I was satisfied. And then I had some smores; marshmallows sacrificed over a table-top open flame, nuzzled between biscuits and a sliver of white chocolate laced with matcha. And they were pretty good too.
Hirata buns, or gua bao, are Taiwan’s answer to the hamburger. They are traditionally devoured as a street food, stuffed with braised pork, ground peanuts, salt pickles and coriander. They derive from mantou, steamed buns popular in North China, a region where wheat, rather than rice, is the staple crop.
The recent Western popularity can be attributed to Momofuku’s David Chang, who grew up with steamed char siu bao in Beijing and then niku-man, the ‘late night kebabs of Tokyo.’ An 11th-hour addition to the menu at Momofuku in New York in 2004 has become his restaurant’s signature dish and spawned a spate of dedicated eateries, from Hirata-San in New York in 2008, to Yum Bun and Flesh & Buns subsequently in London. Yum Bun won the People’s Choice Award at the 2012 British Street Food Awards, and another gua bao vendor, Bao, won in 2013.
Why so great? Well, just look at the ingredients. Milled wheat flour, water, sugar and leavening agents. Sounds familiar? As David Chang writes on discovering the recipe, “it turns out they are made from a simple white bread dough, mantou (not so different from, say, Wonder Bread), that is steamed instead of baked.”
It is surely little surprise that gua bao have been such a success, folding a tinge of meaty exoticism into the reminiscent warmth of some glorified crustless white Hovis. It is that perfect synthesis of familiarity and ring-fenced excitement that you get when you are doing something mildly naughty and don’t know if you’ll get caught. It’s driving at 75 mph on the motorway, or reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the Tube on your Kindle.
Fine for the thrill, but I suspect that give it a couple of years we will be back to good old-fashioned dim sum and crispy duck pancakes.
Words: Jack Graham