Middle Eastern breads are inspiring food developers in retail and foodservice – but one of the hottest trends in ethnic eating is steamed buns

According to Chinese legend, the origins of steamed buns lie in a rather grisly story involving angry gods and severed heads. Fortunately for British food businesses, no decapitations are required to bring these increasingly popular products to market.

Just a few years ago, steamed buns were likely to be found only in oriental retailers or restaurants, and only die-hard foodies would know their bao bun from their elbow.

But the rise of specialist restaurants, such as Bao in London, and a host of Sunday supplement articles, has dramatically widened the market.

Waitrose is among the supermarkets that now stock steamed buns, and the retailer flagged up bao buns as a product to watch in its 2016 Food and Drink Report. Steamed buns have even been given a festive twist by Morrisons, which is rolling out six-packs of snowmen-shaped bao buns, filled with shredded duck and rich hoisin sauce, as part of its seasonal line-up (see p12).

For the uninitiated, steamed buns are produced from doughs that typically contain white flour, yeast, water, baking powder and oil, and are steamed rather than baked. They have a soft, spongy texture and are usually filled with meat. They go under various names including the Chinese bao filled buns and the Japanese hirata folded buns.

Street food

Steamed buns are riding the wave of interest in street food, according to Albert Yip, managing director of the London stores of oriental supermarket chain and wholesaler Wing Yip. “Steamed buns are certainly having a moment and we’ve seen an increase in the number of steamed buns and related ingredients entering the market,” he says. The business now stocks around 75 different product lines, and carries ingredients to make them, including medium gluten flour and plain wheat flour. 

“Over the past 12 months hirata bun sales have increased in particular and, in the foodservice side, we’ve noticed a rise in more quick-service style and food truck outlets selling the product.”

Yip adds that steamed buns are no longer bought only by Taiwanese or Chinese customers, as they appeal to a wide range of consumers. “The types of filling have also moved on from the standard char siu, chicken, and pork & vegetable, with customers now using them as a host for Korean fillings, such as red pepper paste and kimchi,” he says. “Our range has increased as customers seek a much wider variety of fillings, both sweet and savoury.

“With the street food scene showing no signs of slowing down, we believe steamed buns will remain a prominent feature on the menus of eating-out establishments across the nation for some time yet.”

Also predicting a healthy future for steamed buns in the UK is London Food Machinery, which represents Japanese equipment manufacturer Rheon Automatic Machinery. London Food Machinery director Ian Ort says there are already three businesses in the UK manufacturing filled steamed buns. “A large number are for the Asian community and are supplied into stores like Wing Yip and restaurants,” he adds. “Meanwhile, some are mainstream – you can buy mini twist-top steamed buns from Ocado and Waitrose.”

Rheon says the local Japanese market largely comprises convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart, which are well known for food-to-go.

Filled steamed buns are one of the most popular items in Japanese c-stores, which use point-of-sale equipment that can keep the buns warm to prevent them degrading. As well as traditional sweet and savoury fillings, the stores offer newer variants such as curry- or pizza-filled.

Rheon says its stress-free dough technology is used on automated bao lines to make steamed buns with a good texture, adding that gentle dough handling is important to the production process.

Düsseldorf-based Rheon Europe has produced twist-top steamed buns, bao and hirata buns in Europe and around the world. Its projects have included working with Kortlever to produce an automated bao bun line in the Netherlands. Products from the line are sold individually wrapped and can be heated in a microwave to be sold as on-the-go food.

While steamed buns are one type of product well placed to tap consumer demand for authentic food with provenance, there are many others.

This provenance trend is nothing new to the bakery sector, according to Bakels, with some bakery products containing ingredients that ‘tell a story’, something consumers are switched on to. The company produces a Cholla Bread Concentrate and Complete Mix inspired by traditional Jewish Challa Bread. “This enriched bread is sold into the retail sector and not only proves popular with Jewish customers, but anyone with a taste for sweet bread,” says Michael Schofield, marketing manager at Bakels.

Texture and crumb

Adelie Foods, meanwhile, has included a Middle Eastern-style simit bread in the Daily Bread sandwich range it relaunched in March. At the time, Adelie innovation director Johnny Hare said the inclusion of simit bread was the result of “extensive and detailed research”, describing its texture and crumb as “similar to a bagel, but with a lighter edge to it and in a new shape”.

Simit is traditionally a circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds or, less commonly, poppy, flax or sunflower seeds, found predominantly in the Middle East and Turkey.

The Middle East has also recently inspired Waitrose, which launched 23 new products into its Good to Go range, alongside 18 improved lines, as consumer demand for healthy food on-the-go grows. The retailer has worked to diversify the breads used in its sandwiches, such as bloomers and open flatbreads, including a Middle Eastern open flatbread with harissa chickpeas, baba ganoush, charred peppers, asparagus and micro-cress.

And there is likely to be more in the way of ethnic inspiration, according to food developers. Speaking to British Baker in March, CSM global culinary head Morgan Larsson said: “We expect to see even more creativity from bakers, particularly focusing on hybrids, savoury and sweet combinations, healthier alternatives, and ethnic inspirations.

“Ethnic spices are a big trend, with ginger paired with orange, or cardamom and savoury herbs and flavours a great way to create a range of breads or cakes.”

Closer to home, Bridor recently launched its Frédéric Lalos-Paris range as part of its partnership with French baker Frédéric Lalos, who has worked in French establishments such as Lenôtre and Hotel Matignon. He owns five bakeries in Paris including the Le Quartier du Pain (Bread Corner) and one in Taiwan.

The Bridor range comprises seven loaves: Baguette Parisien, Baguette de Campagne, Batard Loaf (available as 330g or 540g), Le Pochon Loaf, Cereal Loaf and Sharing Loaf.

“The Bridor Frédéric Lalos – Paris range, is generous and made for sharing,” Bridor says. “Their shapes might be rustic and remind us of the breads of old, but their flavour is resolutely modern and mild with a slightly sweet taste.”

Meanwhile, the increasing diversity in the UK is offering opportunities to mainstream brands. Warburtons, for example, has just gained kosher status for a range of bread and morning goods. The baker’s products have been certified by the Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din (KLBD), which licenses more than 100 caterers, bakeries, restaurants, food manufacturers, delis and shops and provides supervision of 3,000 catered events every year.

The news comes a year after Hovis announced most of its products had gained KLBD certification, and highlights how  big an opportunity ethnic markets, flavours and recipes offer Britain’s baking industry.

Recipe: Dampfnudel

This time last year, many people outside Germany had never heard the word dampfnudel, let alone knew it was a bread roll/dumpling. That all changed when it featured in a Paul Hollywood challenge on The Great British Bake Off.

These steamed dampfnudel rolls (right) can be eaten as dinner rolls with a meal, or sliced in half to be used as buns for sandwiches, including deli/sliced meats, veggie burgers and hamburgers. 


  • Makes: 6 rolls
  • Warm water (27-37°C), 360ml
  • Active dry yeast, 10ml
  • All-purpose flour, 720ml
  • Sugar, 15ml
  • Salt, 5ml
  • Vegetable oil, 15ml
  • One egg, whisked
  • Solid vegetable shortening, 30ml


  1. In a bowl, add 240ml water and yeast, then stir to combine well. Set aside for 5 minutes.
  2. Add remaining flour, sugar, salt, oil, and egg, then stir well.
  3. Knead for 5 minutes, until smooth and pliable, then cut dough into 6 pieces.
  4. Shape each piece of dough into a smooth round ball.
  5. Lightly coat tops of balls with non-stick cooking vegetable oil spray.
  6. Wait 30 to 60 minutes until dough balls have doubled in volume.
  7. Melt 15ml shortening in a pot  or frying pan with a lid, on one dial setting less than medium heat.
  8. Transfer 1 dough ball on to a slotted spoon, gently place the ball into the melted shortening, and allow it to slide off the spoon.
  9. Repeat step 8 until 3 dough balls are in the pot/pan together.
  10. Pour 60ml warm water into the pot/pan, then immediately put the lid on.
  11. Cook for 6 minutes, without removing the lid to peek
  12. Remove lid and, using a slotted spoon, turn over the dough rolls, and cook for 1 more minute until golden-brown on top.
  13. With a slotted spoon, transfer the rolls, one at a time, onto a serving plate.
  14. Repeat steps 8 to Step 13, until all 6 rolls are on a serving plate.
  15. Wait 5 minutes, then serve.

Source: Bread: A Beginner’s Guide, written by James Shipley


The recipe was brought to the US by Peter, great uncle of Lisa Vaughn, editor of James Shipley’s book Bread: A Beginner’s Guide. In 1923, he and six family members immigrated by boat from Leimen, Germany, through Ellis Island in New York.

Peter first worked in the US in a German-style bakery, while he and the other family members learned English and became US citizens. He joined the US military in 1941 and was stationed on a battleship as a gunner. One day, he could not report to duty, as he was ill. That same day, the ship came under attack and every gunner on duty was killed. Saddened by the loss of his friends, Peter asked the man in charge of the ship’s kitchen if he could bake something for “comfort food”.

The smell of Peter’s baking drew the attention of an officer on the ship, and inquiry was made as to who the baker was. When Peter was identified, he was reassigned to the kitchen permanently, to bake and cook every day for the ship’s officers.

Eurostar doubles chapati flours

Demand for healthier products has prompted Yorkshire-based Eurostar Commodities to double production of its Spelt & Rye chapati flours.

The company said sales of the lines had increased by 53% year on year, exceeding expectations in what the supplier described as “a massive trend toward healthy alternatives”.

“We are delighted by the success of this product and it reflects a larger consumer trend towards ingredients that have increased health benefits,” says Eurostar managing director Philip Bull.

“Many of these products, because of their more natural processing, have enhanced flavour properties and increased absorption benefits. We are excited to continue developing new products in this area.”

Spelt & Rye chapati flours blend older grains of rye and spelt to produce a tasty chapati, high in quality and with the softness and flexibility required for producing a great result, according to the company.

Produced by Eurostar’s development team who “trialled different grains and blends to create the optimum combination of rye and spelt”, the product is available in two chapati flour varieties: medium brown and wholemeal.

Rye and spelt give a rich hearty taste and retain a larger quantity of nutrients than other types of grains when milled, according to Eurostar. They are a good source of fibre and minerals and are higher in protein than wheat flour.

Because they are low-GI (glycaemic index), the company says the products are also good for diabetics. Rye is also a source of dietary fibre, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin B1.

Eurostar’s medium brown and wholemeal varieties are available in 2kg and 5kg bags.

The Indian bakery market

Six months ago, British Baker reporter Ashley Williams was invited to Mumbai by Signature Flatbreads to visit its site in Nashik and compare the differences between the UK and Indian bakery markets. And what a difference there is.

One of India’s leading food distributors, TJUK Trade Networks, gave an insight into how it distributed baked products across Mumbai.

Keyur Bhatia, chairman of TJUK, told me India is at least “20 years behind the UK” in the baking market, but is one of the fastest-growing food categories in the country.

Bhatia said the British baking industry could learn from the Indian market, particularly with regards to frozen products.

This, he feels, carries a stigma in the UK, which needs to be educated about storage and usage. “Frozen foods are fresher and healthier than ambient products as they have a longer shelf life and there are no preservatives in the product,” Bhatia said. “Adding frozen food captures the nutritional benefits soon after the food is harvested or cooked.”

The retail structure in bakery is very different to the UK. In-store bakeries are not widespread in India, with only a selected number in premium stores. In India, small independent retailers known as ‘mom and pop’ stores are split into four categories, with A being the highest and D being the lowest in terms of quality.

A-class stores are similar to those in the UK, with a variety of high-quality baked goods in stand-out packaging and at a higher cost. D-class stores are very small shops, with a few products on offer at a low price (pictured above).

The majority of Indian consumers are short of cash and mainly use an app called E-Wallet to purchase baked goods.

Shilpa Agarwal, marketing director for Signature International Foods, said India was one of the world’s biggest e-commerce markets, with the largest amount of internet/smartphone users, at 340 million.

She added that demonetisation of all 500 rupee (£5) and R1,000 (£10) banknotes drove the impact of the e-commerce market. “Demonetisation has transformed the way India is shopping and is making it easier and quicker,” she said.