One of the first Cantonese words I learned to say was “bao,” which loosely translates to English as “bread” and more specifically “bun.”
Two years old, my parents recorded my giggling how much I enjoyed bao with a cassette recorder. The tapes were lost shortly after I discovered them amongst my dad’s “Teach Yourself French” material. But, my fondness of sweeter-than-dinner-roll steamed and baked oriental buns lives on.
One of the first things Tarek Hassan said to me, after I learned he had successfully applied for one of eighteen newly minted on-street food vendor licenses last spring, involved brown bean sauce.
Rushing around in a full apron, he was assembling a marinade for a bao filling.
“Don, I found a brown bean sauce not made by Lee Kum Kee,” he said, gleefully brandishing a bottle he had purchased from one of the lesser known oriental grocery stores on Somerset Street W. The label clearly stated the contents were “made with no GMO beans.”
Salty and savoury, with a molasses character, brown bean sauce is one of the integral flavourings used to make Chinese barbecue pork, char siu. If you have ever visited the “deli” counter at a Chinese supermarket, you likely came across the slow roasted strips of red-glazed boneless pork loin (also “butt” or neck). They hang alongside the whole roasted crackled pig. Both are prized by oriental families.
Hassan, a former line cook and Carleton University engineering graduate (Computer Engineering Systems), makes char siu from heritage pork (usually Berkshire) and pressed tofu for his take on what he refers to as the “original” street food.
After months of delays, Hassan triumphantly drove his newly manufactured, customized, and inspected GongFu Bao cart to its location on Elgin Street, across from the Lord Elgin Hotel (100 Elgin Street).
Firstly, he crowd-funded almost $6000 via Indiegogo to purchase his cart from Vancouver manufacturer Apollo. The campaign ended May 19th. Then, he had to work with the back-ordered manufacturer to produce and ship the cart. Afterward, he had to work with the various powers that be to safety his cart for food service.
All this said, he and at least one additional hand set up and serve long weekday lineups near the entrance of Confederation Park; everyone vying for Hassan’s ever changing lunch hour options of steamed buns.
Contrary to local culinary urban legend, there was no pivotal moment when he ventured into the world of steamed buns. Hassan can’t seem to remember when he first encountered them.
“It was either at T&T or at the freezer section of a supermarket,” remarked the Toronto native.
Thing is, Ottawa isn’t new to Gongfu Bao. Its first encounter was at 2012’s Feast of Fields, an annual chef and farmer paired organic food showcase event.
When it comes to food, Hassan likens cooking to martial arts; a balance of careful technique and ingredients produces flavour and texture. Would you believe he learned his bao “pleating” technique from a Tibetan monk?
When it comes to ingredients, Hassan believes food must be sourced well, but priced so it can be accessible to anyone. He still needs to make a living, though.
At Feast of Fields, Hassan was paired with Paul Slomp of Grazing Days. They served corned beef heart terrine-stuffed guo bao with carrot and daikon pickles and horse radish mayonnaise. So, steamed bun tacos.
A successful event, Hassan returned to industry kitchens thereafter.
An alumnus of Fraser Cafe (7 Springfield Road), Side Door Contemporary Kitchen (18-A York Street), now defunct Savannah Cafe, and Izakaya (339 Elgin Street), he lists chefs Michael Radford and Jonny Korecki as mentors.
Accordingly, Hassan adopted Radford and Korecki’s food philosophies during his 6-years working in professional kitchens. While he prefers to cook with ingredients sourced from local farms, he employs oriental cooking techniques and flavour profiles.
“I roll with the smaller crops…I want to feature essential qualities of the ingredients, so [they] maintain [their] character and integrity,” he explained.
“For instance kohlrabi has a similar texture to green papaya.”
Chance downtime and a reference by Ottawa street food pioneer Jackie Jolliffe of Stone Soup Truck resulted in Hassan going on CBC Radio’s All In A Day with host Alan Neal. He was included in a panel to come up with street food criteria to judge applications.
It forced him to consider applying himself.
Now, a year later, Hassan slings meat and vegetarian steamed bao from a tricked out food cart.
Wed baos: - maple charsiu pork - chicken & chickpea curry w/ chknskin/cilantro - Shanghai grilled cheese w/ leek/brownbutter/tomatosoupdemi
— Gongfu bao cart (@gongfubao) September 25, 2013
Incidentally, his bao recipes were honed during the delay getting to “market,” which saw Hassan preparing and serving bao on Fridays from the kitchen at self-described “artisan delicatessen” The Piggy Market in Westboro (400 Winston Avenue).
The bao he now serves is thrice-risen and lighter. Fillings are always flavourful and creative.
Hassan’s is an artisan product, very different from what you get at the Asian supermarket.
At a measly $10, for a bao, freshly-made slaw (small), and a drink, you really can’t go wrong visiting Gongfu Bao for lunch!
Bao for life!