Bao are those pudgy little Chinese bun-babies that my tastebuds have always squealed over. I hunted down chicken ones at Chinatown in Malaysia, only to tear my hair out by the end because every corner restaurant had run out of them that afternoon. I tasted some at Dubai Mall, but those were just blobs of blah disguised as bao. But finally, at this 11th month of the year, I’ve found the Chinese buns that I just want to squish and cuddle up inside my mouth. To the pan-fried lamb Bao at Nihal, ni hao!
These pan-fried bao (sheng jian bao) should skyrocket to the top of every foodie’s list if they find themselves holding chopsticks in Shanghai. 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. But I forgot about the nibbly dough-skin in a second, because the bao ruptured to reveal a hot, juicy clump of ground lamb balled up inside, smushed with chopped scallions, soy sauce, and an X-factor that vaguely reminded me of fermented soy bean paste. I normally don’t wish this on anyone, but may those fried bao haunt you like demonic dumplings in your dreams up until that day you drag yourself to Jumeirah and try them. It’ll be worth it. And if turns out to not be worth it, then…then I’d sheepishly urge you to shift your attention to these veggie bao.
The server was kind enough to indulge our indecisiveness by giving us a plate that had both the lamb and veggie bao variants. Stuffed with a light mixture of mushrooms and spinach, the veggie bao look at you with this puppy-eyed stare that begs: dunk me in soy sauce won't you? I tried swishing them around in hoisin too, but hoisin is far too loud and viscous for a stuffing that’s so fresh and vegetal in comparison to the flavour-dripping lamb.
The dough was different for the spinach and mushroom bao: this skin was yeasty and spongy, and far thicker than the one encasing the lamb bao. Comparing the dough of the lamb bao to the veggie one would be like…I don’t know…comparing latex to cake?
May I also introduce you to this tray of sizzling beef, onions, green and red peppers, spotted with black pepper flakes and drenched silly in peppery, beefy juices.
The beef was so maddeningly hot that I scalded the palette of my mouth on the first bite (sizzler and hot? gawrsh, whoda known.), but it was so good that seconds later, I was juggling a second scorching beefy slice in my mouth again.
The wood-smoked Peking Duck was a hit with my two guy friends on the table. Sample praises for the dish included: ‘Super crispy skin’ and ‘So good that I can eat it plain without the pancake!’
I’m no Peking Duck connoisseur, but if I ever do host a Duck Oscar Night, Nihal’s version may or may not get a nomination, depending on how many Peking Ducks I can try in the city before that big night. The only Peking Duck that’s guaranteed to waddle up my red carpet is the one I’ve tried at China Sea.
The vegetable noodles and lacklustre sizzling shrimps were forgotten on the table. The next time around, I’m latching on to the noodles we witnessed being hand-pulled in their open kitchen, and the braised tiger prawns modelled so gobsmackingly on the menu.
Which brings me to the open-kitchen. It was fascinating to watch the Chinese chefs in their element, stretching the noodles, unhinging the ducks from the giant steel duck roaster, stirring the soup with fat soupy ladles, using a burning newspaper to do…I have no idea what the chef was doing with that burning newspaper, let’s hope the ashes didn’t befriend the black pepper sprinkled over our sizzling beef. The kitchen was an animated scene of stirring-flicking-tossing-pulling-chopping-basting motions that fell seamlessly in line with one another, with a peaceful calm and steely spotlessness that belied the complexity and incredible variation of the dishes on the menu.
There were also things our beady eyes spotted in the kitchen that were not fit for the faint-hearted. I won’t tell you what they were because...secrecy = intrigue = you visiting Nihal out of curiosity = LAMB BAO. But if you’re not the kind that would whisk a fritter off of a street-stall in a foreign country without nuking your hands with half a bottle of hand-sanitizer and ensuring that an Imodium follows the fritter in close pursuit down your gullet, then this restaurant may not be for you. Or just don’t sit facing the open-kitchen. But if you’re the kind that gallops towards street food with the urgency of a white knight rescuing the last skewer of grilled meat, then…go to the restaurant and try to spot what I’m talking about yourself. Just make sure you order a plate of fried lamb bao while you’re at it.
Nihal Chinese Restaurant
Sheikh Hamdan Complex, Opposite Union House, Jumeirah 1. [It’s right next to Down to Earth Organic, whose location map is right here.]
Phone: +971 (4) 3266888, (50) 5948555