Food obsession: Sheng jian bao

Steamed and pan-fried lamb buns transformed an inexplicable inner bao fantasy into a juicy, chewy, crusty, soul-stroking reality.

My love for steamed Chinese bao (aka stuffed buns) completely perplexes me. I did not grow up encountering them in Dubai and I barely ever tasted them in the US. Truth be told, I cannot dredge up more than two bao memories over the entirety of my food recollections. But when someone mentions the word bao, a hungry current zaps through my brain to the pit of my stomach and turns on a flickering signboard with the message clear: Intense Craving Available Here.

I reckon it is just the thought of a podgy steamed dumpling-like bun, stuffed with a secret bundle of mouth-watering marinated meat, that is enough to drive me over my gluttonous edge.

When I spotted a photo of lamb bao on the takeaway menu of Nihal Restaurant in Jumeirah 1 (04 326 6888), my lustful signboard short-circuited. This plump, yeasty bao looked similar to cream-coloured steam buns, but with a perplexing golden lattice-crust on one surface. Frantic research revealed them to be none other than sheng jian bao. These were ravishing bao beings born in Shanghai, where steamed buns are pan-fried to a crisp on one lip-smacking edge. The realisation was overwhelming. This was the bun that would fulfil every inner bao fantasy that my stomach had concocted in its hallucinatory mind.

My cravings were indulged by Nihal's sheng jian bao. The skin of the bao was chewy, tender and elastic like a dumpling, with a slight crisp on the end that had been seared in the frying pan. The bao ruptured to reveal a piping-hot, juice-dripping clump of ground lamb, balled up with chopped spring onions, soy sauce, and an X-factor that hinted of fermented soy bean paste. The vague recollections of unremarkable bao fizzled away in my mind, never to be sought out again. Dramatic as it may sound, my inner bao oracle had finally played itself out into an incredibly fulfilling reality.

Arva Ahmed founded Frying Pan Adventures (, which tours people through hidden culinary gems in Dubai

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