When Pixar's hotly-anticipated The Incredibles 2 hits theaters on June 15, audiences will also get to see Bao, the super-cute animated short about a dumpling that comes to life. Directed by Domee Shi, the first-ever female short director in Pixar history, the heartwarming animation draws on Shi's own Chinese-Canadian family food traditions for inspiration—Shi even got her mom involved.
"Dumplings were a huge part of my childhood because I would make them with my mom—a lot," Shi told Food & Wine. "We made them during the holidays, before new year's, and every time my mom would visit me in Oakland, California, she would make a bunch of dumplings for me and put them in the freezer so I could eat them at any time. To me, making dumplings is a family activity—you never really do it alone, you do it with your mom or your grandma, and she learned how to make dumplings from her grandma."
To get the animation just right, Pixar employed Shi's mom as a cultural consultant, and asked her to hold cooking demos for the whole production crew. "In the opening shots, when you see the hands kneading the dough, that's all my mom's folding techniques—the way she punches a hole through the dough and does that crazy windmill move, that's how my mom would roll out the dough," Shi says. In fact, the studio even filmed her mom in dumpling-making action. "We shot my mom's hands doing it and we told the animators to look at the reference and to copy it directly."
For Shi and the Pixar team, it wasn't just the dumpling-making technique that was important to get right—every single food detail in the short film is carefully crafted to reflect Shi's heritage—born in Chongqing, near the Sichuan province, Shi emigrated to Toronto when she was child.
"We really wanted it to feel authentic," she says. "I put a lot of the dishes that my parents cooked for me growing up because we wanted it to feel very specific."
Warning: Spoiler alerts below!
"You know that scene when mom makes an effort to cook a huge meal to win back dumpling's love?" Shi says. "A lot of those dishes are Sichuan-specific—there's a huge table spread, we have shui zhu yu pian, which is the boiled fish in the red chili oil dish; ma po do fu; bok choi; gan bian si ji dou, stir-fried green beans; and steamed fish—which isn't really Sichuan, but because I grew up in Toronto, in Chinatown, I ate all kinds of Chinese food from all over the place; cucumber salad; and sliced cold beef."
As for her mom's signature dumpling recipe, for which the animated short is named? Shi says that her family likes to keep it old-school. "She won't use a food processor or a meat grinder for the pork filling," Shi says. "She'll use an old-school cleaver and just chop everything, throw in chives and garlic, mince everything together, and chop for ten minutes."
Want to make dumplings at home? Here's Bao Director Domee Shi's mom's bao recipe—illustrated!
First, get the measurements right. Or about right.
Here's what you'll need: flour, dry yeast, water for the dough; for the filling: ground pork, Chinese cabbage, carrots, onion stalks, an egg, ground ginger, olive oil, chicken bouillon powder, oyster sauce, cooking wine, and pepper
Step 1: Mix the flour and yeast in a mixing bowl.
Step 2: Add water and knead.
Step 3: Let the dough rest and rise.
Step 4: Cook the pork as instructed in the cute illustration below.
Step 5: Mix it up.
Step 6: Roll out the dough using Domee Shi's mom's windmill technique (see Bao for reference!)
Step 7: Cut the dough into half-inch pieces and roll these out to form wrappers.
Step 8: Fill and pinch!
Step 9: You need a steamer basket for this step.
Step 10: Eat or adopt and raise as your own (latter is optional).
Most importantly: Go see The Incredibles 2 and Bao when it opens in theaters June 15!