Char siu bao does not make a manapua. The manapua is a Hawaii-born street food, certainly inspired by the Chinese bao but not at all the same thing. Bao is a Cantonese dim sum dish, mostly filled with char siu, in small sized buns. But the food Cantonese immigrants in Hawaii sold on the street was different.
Manapua is a Hawaiianized name for “pork pastry,” and through the years they’ve gotten bigger and bigger. The fillings also vary–sweet potato, hot dog and, of course, the ubiquitous sweet red roast pork. There are also two schools of manapua: baked or steamed. Until now, Honolulu dominated the manapua craving, with bakeries like Libby’s, Char Hung Sut, Royal Kitchen, Island Manapua Factory and Chun Wah Kam serving the best meaty buns.
Now Maui has its own. It’s called The Manapua Bakery, and it’s located on Main Street in Wailuku.
“We worked on our recipe for months,” said Natasha Gould, one of Manapua Bakery’s co-owners. “I knew we had to start with something as good as the ones everyone craves from their favorite spot in Oahu. If we could impress the people who go to Oahu to buy their manapua and bring them back, then I would have something. People are serious about their manapua and they have a finicky palate.”
Keoni Smith, Gould’s fiancé and business partner, had brought her some manapua from Oahu, and after eating a few she wanted to know where they could get some on Maui. But Smith told her that Maui didn’t have any manapua bakeries. Gould couldn’t believe it. At the time, they were trying to establish their own horse stable and trail ride business. She tried to convince friends in the restaurant business to do manapua, but no one bit.
When setting up their horse stables stalled, they decided to bring manapua to Maui. After moving from Hana to Wailuku, they set up the Manapua Bakery. Gould says they first tested out recipes on friends and family.
“We got the sweet bread recipe from my great aunt in Portugal,” said Gould. “My auntie had to call her–my Portuguese is very rusty. This sweet bread is amazing. The steam bun is very particular, from the measurements to the steam time. You have to get it just right. The steam bun has to have that perfect roundness.”
And they certainly do. It was about 2pm when I visited the bakery, and watched tray after tray of steamed and baked buns coming out of the kitchen and filling hot storage racks. I could hear the phone ringing constantly over the sounds coming from the kitchen radio. Gould said it takes 25 minutes to steam and around 22 to 24 minutes to bake batches. The baked manapua have a little glaze that is brushed over the top to give it shine and a bit of sweetness.
With all the racks full, I asked if they are staying open later now, thinking this many manapua would last. But Gould told me they could sell them all within the hour. It looked like a lot, Gould said, but someone could come in and buy it all. It’s happened before. Just as steady as the stream of warm buns emerging from the oven and steamer baskets, customers walk in and out clutching bags and boxes of their favorites.
Smith said they bake about 5,000 manapua a day, and they can’t keep up. “We need other manapua shops in Maui,” he said.
They buy 50 pounds of sweet potato from Molokai each week. It’s cooked in coconut milk and used as a filling for one of their vegetarian options. In their kim chee and mushroom version, they have a Korean lady down the street make their kim chee.
“She makes the kim chee from scratch and we tweaked it to our liking,” said Gould. “We try to source as much as we can from our neighbors and keep the stimulus here. We like that we are providing work and income in this area, but that is why some of the prices are higher.”
They also pay close attention to customer requests, and suggestions pan out into new flavors at the bakery like the lau lau pork hash. Another new flavor is teriyaki pork, which is catching on quick. The menu varies each day depending on what’s in stock, but they are trying to keep char siu, roast duck and sweet potato versions ready to go. They also have spicy egg, Indian beef curry and miso chicken. They will also make a shrimp and pea version that’s only offered as a special. The manapua ranges from $2.25 for the potato and egg to $2.65 for everything else. The menu also has pork hash and shrimp hash siomai at $1.15 and $1.20, respectively.
The fillings are savory and generous and the bread is light and fluffy. These manapua become addictive really fast. The duck bun is my favorite so far (both steamed and baked). In fact, I really can’t decide if I like steamed or baked better. The steamed bread is sturdier, dense with a light and airy crumb. But the Portuguese sweet bread baked version is divine. I really like how its juicy meaty filling slightly soaks into the bread.
If you’re afraid that The Manapua Bakery might be out of what you are looking for, you can always give them a call to see what they have on hand. Pay attention to their Facebook page for updates as to what is on special, or special deals like $1.99 manapua. The bakery is open from 7am to 3pm.
The Manapua Bakery
1246 L. Main St., Wailuku
For another great blogpost about manapua please go to