By DAVID BORAKS
I’ve been away from Asia for a few years now, and I’m still looking for an way to get back to Taipei or Shanghai or Tokyo. I miss the food, especially dumplings and buns, steamed or fried. They’re not like anything I grew up eating here in the states, and sometimes they just hit the spot.
Among our favorites are meat buns made with simple yeast doughs. In China, most households don’t bake, but puffy baozi are a staple that can be steamed or fried. It’s never hard to find a restaurant or street stall serving some sweet or savory twist on the theme.
Frozen buns can be found at most Asian groceries, but I find them lacking. They’re often not as tasty as I wish, and sometimes you can’t tell how long they’ve been in the case – freezer burn suggests too long.
Fortunately, the basic yeast dough (famian in Chinese) is relatively simple to make at home, and no special ingredients are needed.
We made our favorite fried Chinese pork buns the other night for dinner – a puffy dough with a filling flavored with ginger, soy sauce and a bit of sesame oil. To go along with it, we stir-fried some Chinese cabbage with garlic, and a wok-full of skinny Japanese eggplants, flavored with fresh basil, garlic, soy sauce and chili sauce.
Here’s a recipe for the basic dough, and pork filling.
A note about the meat: Traditionally, this would be a pork dish, but you can substitute ground turkey or chicken – the real flavor comes with the ginger and other additions.
We usually buy our ground pork at Davidson Farmers’ Market. In fact, we started making these buns at home after a chat with Cassie Parsons of Grateful Grower’s Farm in Denver. We got to talking about Chinese food and I asked if she could grind us some extra-fatty pork – a bit of a secret ingredient, especially in the juicy Shanghai-style dumplings called xiaolongbao. She did, and we were off and running.
1 packet dry yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoon)
3/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
Add yeast to the warm water, then add oil, and set aside to proof.
Combine flour, sugar and baking powder in a mixing bowl. When yeast is ready, add it to the dry ingredients and mix well, as for any yeast dough. (I’ve taken to making most of my yeast doughs now in my standing mixer, outfitted with a dough hook. Works like a charm.)
If you’re making it by hand, knead the dough for a few minutes to mix thoroughly. Once the dough is combined, put it into an oiled bowl and cover Let it rise until about double in size, 30-45 minutes. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate until needed.)
PAN FRIED MEAT-FILLED BUNS
10-12 ounces ground pork (substitute ground chicken or turkey, if desired)
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions or green onions
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine, or dry sherry
2 to 3 teaspoons sesame oil (I like a little extra)
Basic yeast dough (see above)
Combine the meat and other ingredients (I just use my hand) in a large mixing bowl, and set aside. (Note: I didn’t have any scallions around this weekend, so I substituted finely chopped yellow onion. I also added a few finely chopped leaves of Chinese (napa) cabbage. If you add any kind of chopped greens, it’s a good idea to squeeze out excess liquid before mixing.)
Form the dough into a long roll – maybe 15 inches, and 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Cut the dough in half, then in half again and continue until you have 16 pieces. (Photo 1, above.)
Take a piece of the dough, roll it into a uniform ball in your hand, then use your palm to flatten it into a circle, about 3 to 4 inches across (Photo 2). Make sure the center of the dough is thick enough to stretch a bit.
To make each baozi (bun), place a circle of dough on your hand, put a heaping tablespoon of filling into the center. (Photo 3). Bring the sides together and pinch and twist to close the dough. (Photo 4.) Don’t panic about your technique. Of course, the pros have all kinds of rules for how to do this, but as long as you close the top and the meat stays in, you’re fine. Put the buns aside on a floured surface for 15 or 20 minutes to let the dough rise a bit more. (Photo 5.) If the tops open up, just squeeze the edges back together.
To cook: Put a few drops of cooking oil in a medium hot frying pan. Place buns into the hot pan one at a time, leaving room to expand a bit. In our household, the cooks disagree about which side should go up. Meaning: it doesn’t really matter. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook in two batches.
Brown the bottoms for a few minutes, lifting just a bit to check. They’ll brown pretty quickly – don’t let them go too far! When they’re golden brown, grab a pot lid, hold it over your pan to block the splatters, and add water to about 1/4 inch. It’s better too start with too little and add more; if you put in too much, the buns will be soggy. You want to steam, not boil, the buns. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the water is gone and buns start sizzling a bit. Using chopsticks or tongs, gently flip the buns and brown the other side for another minute or so. Remove and serve!
These are great with a dipping sauce, and everybody has a different preference. My kids like ponzu sauce (a lemony soy sauce), available in the international food aisle. Plain soy sauce works. In China, you’ll get a small bowl of Chinkiang (Zhenjiang) vinegar and ample supply of julienned fresh ginger. (You can substitute balsamic vinegar.) Other additions include sesame oil, chili oil or a chili sauce such as Sriracha.
This recipe is adapted from Andrea Nguyen, Oct. 7, 2009, Los Angeles Times, “Recipe: Pan-fried pork and scallion mini-buns.”