Hong Kong Chef Remakes an American Favorite

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by mapsbecky

Chef May Chow draws on her international childhood to make burgers inspired by American and Asian food.

Chef May Chow draws on her international childhood to make burgers inspired by both North American and Asian food.

Chef May Chow has made a career out of combining the cuisines she ate as a girl living in the United States, Canada, and Hong Kong. The 32-year-old chef’s Hong Kong-based restaurant, Little Bao, offers what she calls “Chinese burgers.” Instead of American-style ground beef patties, her burgers use more traditional Chinese fillings. Instead of oven baked bread, Chow’s burgers are served on traditional Chinese steamed buns. Her innovative use of American and Chinese influences has led her to be named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017.

The honor, sponsored by an organization called Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, is awarded by a committee of chefs, restaurant owners, food lovers, journalists, and bloggers throughout Asia. Chow will receive her award at an awards ceremony in February in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chow’s restaurant is called Little Bao. It serves hamburgers on traditional Chinese steamed buns called baozi, or bao. The burgers have ingredients that are more familiar to Asian tastes. One of the selections is pork belly with shiso red onion salad and sesame dressing. Another is Sichuan-style fried chicken with Chinese black vinegar glaze. Chow even makes a special dessert burger— ice cream stuffed between two fried buns.

An International Childhood

May Chow was born in Canada, but spent parts of her childhood in Canada, the United States, and Hong Kong. Chow fell in love with cooking as a kindergartener in Canada while watching her mother cook for their large extended family.

“I used to have a little stool, and my mum would take it out and give it to me, and hand me a knife, so I was cutting vegetables and washing stuff,” she remembers. “I just loved it.”

While attending high school in Connecticut, Chow knew she wanted to be a chef, but her parents were concerned that a career in restaurants was not a good match for their daughter’s skills. Instead of going to culinary school, Chow decided to attend Boston University, where she received a degree in hotel management. While at the university, however, the school started offering cooking classes taught by local chefs. Chow was reminded that food, not hotels, was her true love. The ambitious young student soon persuaded a local chef to hire her part-time while she continued to finish her degree.

After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, California, where she cooked with a friend who was the private chef for the film director James Cameron. In 2008, Chow moved back to Hong Kong, where she continued to develop her culinary skills as a full-time chef at restaurants noted for their creative approaches to traditional Asian cuisines.

Chow admits that even when she was learning, she had big dreams. “The first day I started working at a restaurant,” she says, “I decided that I wanted to open my own restaurant.”

Little Bao

Chow eventually started offering her own dishes at local food markets in Hong Kong. Diners’ reactions were positive, and she opened Little Bao in October of 2013. It was so successful that in July 2016, she opened a second Little Bao in Bangkok, Thailand.

Chow’s fame continued to grow beyond Little Bao. She has been a guest chef at international food festivals in Australia and in France. She has also been a guest judge on the popular Asian television show MasterChef Asia

Chow believes her food reflects her international upbringing. “If you define me, my food is exactly me,” she says. “Am I really Chinese? Why do I sound so American? That bao is me–Chinese but understands American culture,”

Bao are often served in bamboo steamers as the are in this restaurant in Yuncheng, China.

Bao are often served in bamboo steamers, such as in this restaurant in Yuncheng, China.

Baozi in China

Baozi, commonly known as bao, is a Chinese bread product. Just like the bread loaves familiar to Western eaters, bao are made from a dough of flour, yeast, and water, plus other ingredients. However, instead of being baked in an oven, bao are cooked in wet steam heat, traditionally in bamboo steamers. The buns may be plain or stuffed with meat, vegetables, or other fillings. Bao may be sweet or savory.

There are many types of bao. Each includes the word bao preceded by the Chinese words for their ingredients.

  • Gai bao: chicken
  • Xiao long bao: pork and crab
  • Char siu bao: barbecue pork
  • Nai huang bao: egg custard
  • Dow sa bao: red bean paste
  • Lin yung bao: lotus paste and egg yolk

Chinese legend credits the invention of bao to Zhuge Liang, an adviser to the emperor Liu Bei around the end of the second century A.D. Zhuge was traveling with an army in southern China when the soldiers were stricken by a deadly plague. Zhuge tried to help the sick men by creating a flour dumpling shaped like a human head filled with pork and beef, which he offered as a sacrifice to the gods. The gods were pleased with his offering, and the men were cured.

Zhuge’s steamed buns were called by the Chinese word mantou, which means “flour head.” Although the word mantou is still used in some parts of China, most people in China call them bao,  the Chinese word for “wrapping.”

Additional Resources

Read more about May Chow and her award at the BBC and the South China Morning Post.

Find out more about Chinese cuisine at China Family Adventure.

Read about traveling to Hong Kong at National Geographic.

Images and Sources

May Chow photo: Sabrina Sikora
May Chow Photo License: Creative Commons 4.0

Bao Photo: J. Samuel Burner
Bao Photo License: Creative Commons 2.0