“I was looking for something different to do. Something a bit more fun, maybe something to do with food” says Lisa Meyer. Little did she know two years after first walking into the Broadway Market Schoolyard carrying 50 Chinese steamed buns, she'd be at the British Street Food Awards 2012 picking up the ‘People’s Choice’ award, as well as being asked to cater at the Observer Food Monthly awards party.
What started out as an East London market stall selling steamed buns is now expanding to a bricks and mortar shop opening soon near London’s Old Street roundabout, as well a bright yellow ‘Yum Bun Bus’, which will be touring festivals throughout the summer.
Meyer’s steamed bun story starts back in 2010 though, when her brother returned from New York with the Momofoku cookbook. Always a keen cook, she tried the pork bun recipe “out of interest” and, after a little experimentation, developed her own recipe which took into consideration the differences between American and British flour.
Nuno Mendes used to have a standing order for 50 Chinese steamed buns as a treat for his staff down the road at Viajante.
Meyer’s steamed buns, described by Helen Graves from The London Review of Sandwiches as ‘a cloud-like bundle of pure pillowy heaven’, are steamed in a clam-shape, and are then filled with slow-roasted pork belly, hoi sin sauce, cucumbers, spring onions and sriracha sauce. They’ve developed somewhat of a cult following – most notably from Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, who used to have a standing order for 50 buns as a treat for his staff down the road at Viajante.
“I was just a home cook who was doing something fun, and to have that kind of endorsement shifted my perception of what was achievable.” says Meyer. “I think that sometimes you just need somebody to give you a little nudge. ”
Meyer describes how Mendes would come to the stall almost every week with his young family. Smiling, she explains how the best part of running a stall is being rooted in one spot week-to-week “serving expectant mothers, then the seasons would change, and they’d come back to the stall a few months later with their baby.” She talks about the community atmosphere, and her friends on neighbouring stands and the “little chats about nothing in particular”.
I put my steamers in it, and they fitted perfectly. I remember thinking ‘yes – this is just the most amazing contraption, ever'
But Meyer isn’t one to sugar-coat life as a market stallholder. “You can feel quite sorry for yourself when it’s raining and you’re standing there by yourself selling nothing” she says. “But then I’m sure it’s the same with every job – getting on the tube every morning can be pretty demoralising.”
Meyer laughs, explaining how a piece of good luck always seemed to be round the corner though. During one “low patch”, lugging steamers to and from the market, a friend found a specially-designed, industrial steamer on wheels being sold on ebay. “I was really dubious at first, because it just seemed too perfect” Meyer admits. “But it arrived at my house, I put my steamers in it, and they fitted perfectly. I remember just thinking ‘yes – this is just the most amazing contraption, ever’".
This is the way that Yum Buns has grown organically over the past three years. When asked about the name, Meyer admits that “I would have been agonising over those decisions if I’d put £10,000 into setting up the business.” As it was, she simply painted the logo onto a wooden board which she took with her for her first day of trading because: “the buns are simply yum, Yum cha is also a kind of Chinese afternoon tea and it sounded good alongside the word ‘bun’.”
I don’t think that cooking’s particularly difficult – but it is about having the confidence to try things, and know that they’ll occasionally go wrong.”
Meyer is entirely a self-taught cook, though she learned a lot from her Japanese mother. She spent the first eight years of her life in Osaka in Japan, surrounded by foodies – particularly her aunt who is a cooking teacher - “the type of Japanese chef who disciplines you if you’re cutting at slightly the wrong angle, and who wipes her utensils with a kitchen towel before washing them up.”
As a teenager she lived with her father, a “Midlands meat and two veg kind of cook”, specialising in chops, potatoes and fantastic curry. So, by the age of thirteen, she was taking charge of the kitchen on a regular basis. “That’s when I made a lot of mistakes. I don’t think that cooking’s particularly difficult – but it is about having the confidence to try things, and know that they’ll occasionally go wrong.”
After graduating from university, Meyer returned to Japan for two years, to teach. It was there that she spent a lot of time scouring Japanese supermarkets and honing her cooking skills: “when you’re living by yourself, and you’re not surrounded by close friends, then you can really get into a hobby” she laughs. On moving back to London though, she moved into radio – and it was only after turning freelance, that she found herself at the Broadway Market Schoolyard armed with 50 buns, and quickly freefalling into the booming world of street food.
As a cuisine moves round the globe it takes on slightly different complexions and I guess that my version is a bit Japanese
When asked how the traditional Chinese snack lies with her strong background in Japanese cooking, Meyer smiles: “The steamed bun is really popular in Japan. Not necessarily the ones we sell, but the cha siu bao-style buns. They’re by the till in every 7-11. I remember thinking they were the most amazing treat – and I wasn’t ever really allowed them.”
Interestingly, Meyer sees the recent popularity of Asian cuisine as reaching Britain via America, as much as Asia. Part of the Momofoku movement, which has helped popularise ramen and kimchi. “As a cuisine moves round the globe it takes on slightly different complexions and I guess that my version is a bit Japanese.”
Whatever version it is that Meyer is cooking, it’s a booming success. And with Yum Bun opening its first permanent kitchen at Old Street this spring, the question on everybody’s lips certainly won’t be about the authenticity of the Chinese steamed buns. The question will be whether there’s room for just one more…