Balls of deliciousness
From China to Malaysia and just about everywhere in between, the breakfast-y snack sala bao is endlessly popular. The steamed bun craze is as strong in Bangkok as anywhere else in Asia, and you don’t have to go to Chinatown to find a good one. Sala Bao Ko Ouan on Asoke-Montri Road churns out house-made buns that are hard to resist.
Also known as dia bao, baozi, banh bao and sio pao in the various countries where they’re popular, sala bao typically comes with any number of fillings baked in the centre of a spongy white flour bun. We have no idea how it’s made, but we do know that all sala bao are not made equally. Finding a really good one for the first time can be life-changing.
Sala Bao Ko Ouan is run by a native of Hat Yai in far Southern Thailand, a city with a large ethnic Chinese population known for serving good sala bao alongside dim sum, kopi and chaa yen (Thai iced tea). The charming blue-and-white shop offers more than a dozen different buns, all displayed in glass cases and laid out on Thai/English menus with pictures that allow you to get an idea of what your filling will look like.
Ko Ouan serves both the standard steamed varieties and also deep-fried sala bao, popular with students from neighbouring Srinakarin University. Fillings tend either towards the sweet, such as taro, Thai custard and red bean; or the savoury, including muu daeng (barbecued “red pork”) and shrimp with salted egg. Our favourite is the minced pork with century egg, so called due to the eggs being preserved for long periods of time in a process that turns them an ugly black colour but also adds an addictive salty and earthy taste.
While we always grab at least one standard sala bao to go with some steamed pork dumplings, one of our favourite Bangkok breakfasts is the krapao gai kai dao mantou, or basil fried chicken with egg. Chopped chicken is sizzled with garlic and holy basil then served over a steamed bun with a fried egg plopped on top, a deliciously runny crown. It all mingles together in a small dish that manages to be exotic yet comforting at the same time.
Keeping with tradition, Ko Ouan accompanies the sala bao with several coffee and tea options. Go for a bold Southern-style kopi; relax with a pot of jasmine or oolong tea; keep it simple with a milky chaa yen or be daring with a plum juice or “red soda”. You can order to go or grab a seat at one of a half-dozen tables set up in the tiny air-con shop or outside on a small deck. Sala bao goes for around 20 to 30 baht a piece.
Address: 68 Asoke-Montri Road (aka Sukhumvit Soi 21; on the side lane leading east into Srinakarin University and next to Runyin Eye Hospital), Bangkok
T: (02) 664 3231
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º33'47.56" E, 13º44'45.66" N
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David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
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