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TAKE A BAO

You can tell when a dish has made it into the mainstream by looking it up in the dictionary. There you’ll find entries for sushi, taco and pho. I still have to italicize as a foreign word bao, the term for Chinese steamed bread and filled buns, but my hunch is that I won’t have to do that for long.

Bao is on the rise, and that’s not just because it features leavened dough. Just check Costco, supermarket chains such as Vons/Pavilions and Ralphs, and of course, any nearby 99 Ranch. It’s not hard to find bao in the frozen or refrigerated food sections.

Convenient as they are, packaged buns are never as satisfying as homemade ones -- freshly steamed, chewy-soft and filled with fragrant roast pork or curried chicken redolent of spices.

Steamed, filled buns originated in China, perhaps as early as the third century AD. They have since spread throughout East and Southeast Asia and were brought to the U.S. by immigrants. I’m thrilled that bao has moved beyond Chinatown excursions into everyday American eating.

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I’ve been infatuated with bao since childhood. Using self-rising flour, sugar and milk for the dough, my mother made a Vietnamese rendition filled with a stir-fried pork-and-vegetable mixture, a wedge of boiled egg and slices of Cantonese roast pork and lap cheung (sausage). I enjoyed them for breakfast and lunch dipped in a pool of soy sauce and lots of black pepper.

On the weekends, our family drove from San Clemente to Chinatown in Los Angeles for dim sum breakfasts at the long-defunct Tai Hong restaurant on Broadway. There I learned to carefully listen to the dumpling ladies’ melodious calls advertising their char siu bao, my favorite kind. The classic Cantonese bao were snowy white, pillowy soft and savory-sweet with the goodness of chopped roast pork inside. Those buns made me swoon, and I always sneaked an extra one from the bamboo steamer.

The stuffed buns from my mom’s kitchen and dim sum houses defined my bao world for decades. I was perfectly satisfied during my youth, but then had an epiphany as a young adult.

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A bao revelation

While studying in Hong Kong on a fellowship in the early 1990s, I traveled to Dali, a town in southwestern China. There I experienced bao like none that I had ever tasted before. They were diminutive, the size of golf balls, filled with juicy ground pork and encased by remarkably spongy, slightly chewy dough. The game changer was not the filling, which I could get my head around, but rather the dough.

In raw form, it sat on the bun maker’s counter as an active, somewhat mischievous blob. The ecru-colored dough was alive with yeasty goodness. At home, I’d been delighted by bao made from overly white, cakey, sweet dough. This dough looked different and, as it turned out, produced superior bao. It was the first time that I’d ever detected wheat flour’s natural savor in bao. Additionally, the Dali dough wasn’t cloying and it allowed the filling to really pop. There were 10 bao per order, and my friends and I enjoyed multiple orders daily during our weeklong stay. That Dali bao quickly became my benchmark for perfection, and it had to do with the dough.

When I returned to the U.S., I began looking for similar dough in commercial Chinese steamed bao but did not find it until I started experimenting on my own. I quickly discovered that bao dough was tricky to master, despite the fact that just a handful of ingredients went into it: wheat flour, leavening, liquid, fat and sugar.

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Bao dough is akin to Western bread dough, the difference being that the cooking method is wet steam heat. For the most part, when bao dough is steamed into plain buns or rolls (the kind you’d tuck a slice of roast duck or pork belly into), they puff up nicely and cook to a wonderful fluffy finish.

The problem arises when the dough is stuffed to make filled buns. Whether the filling is raw or cooked, it introduces moisture into the bun during steaming and can cause the dough to cave in or wrinkle after cooking. Imagine my devastation on the occasions when that happened after hours of working and waiting.

The preventive measures prescribed in cookbooks, such as carefully lifting the steamer lid after the buns are done so that moisture doesn’t drip back onto them, failed me. Plus, that’s not what I observed at dim sum houses and street stalls in Asia, where professional cooks lifted their steamer lids with little care, steam wafting up from below, to serve you a hot bao.

Over the years, I’ve test-driven recipes from many Asian cookbooks, including some devoted to the craft of making Chinese doughy treats. Along the way, I’ve tried dough using starters and employed potassium carbonate solution and Chinese baking powder sold at Asian markets, but the results were either not as light as I wanted or ended up tasting metallic. I’ve kneaded baking powder into the dough at the end in an attempt to achieve a lofty rise; it worked but the bao surface became dimpled.

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I’ve carted flour home from Singapore and purchased Taiwanese flour from 99 Ranch that featured bao photos on the packaging. Low-gluten American cake flour and renowned White Lily flour milled from soft winter wheat have found their way into my bao dough experiments. These bleached, low-gluten flours yield bright white dough that unfortunately tasted flat.

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Keeping it simple

At the end of the day, the best and easiest bao dough is simply made by stirring together these readily available ingredients: moderate gluten all-purpose flour from the supermarket, instant (fast-acting) yeast, baking powder, canola oil, sugar and water. I often knead by hand, but when I feel lazy, I let the food processor do the work. Regardless of method, the result is fabulous.

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The dough cooks up to a fluffy tenderness but with a slight chew, like the Dali dough, and doesn’t collapse under the pressures of steaming. When developing the recipes for my cookbook, “Asian Dumplings,” I nervously tested the dough to make pan-fried stuffed buns (sheng jian baozi), a Shanghai favorite that is like a cross between pot stickers and bao. Cooked in a skillet, the dough amazingly performed without a glitch.

The key is having a little fat and combining yeast with baking powder in a balanced proportion. As biochemist and acclaimed author Shirley Corriher explains in “Cookwise,” working in a small amount of fat tenderizes and enables bread dough to hold gas bubbles well. That lightens the dough, she says, as does employing a two-pronged approach to leavening.

With reliable, delectable bao dough, it is just a matter of picking a filling, stuffing and then steaming. It’s been more than 17 years since I was in Dali. Who would have thought that all the ingredients to produce sensational bao were at my fingertips?

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food@latimes.com

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Basic yeast dough (Famian)

Total time: 50 minutes

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Servings: Makes enough for 32 small or 16 medium buns

Note: All-purpose flour with a moderate amount of gluten, such as widely available Gold Medal, works best to yield tender, yet slightly chewy dough. Unbleached flour produces terrific flavor, but bleached flour imparts a brighter finish that some Asian cooks like.

1 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast

3/4 cup lukewarm water

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2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

Scant 3 cups (12 1/2 ounces) flour

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1. Put the yeast in a small bowl, add the water and set aside for 1 minute to soften. Whisk in the oil to blend and dissolve the yeast. Set aside.

2. To make the dough in a food processor: Combine the sugar, baking powder and flour in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse two or three times to combine. With the motor on, pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube in a steady stream and allow the machine to continue running until the dough starts coming together into a ball, about 20 seconds. (If this doesn’t happen, add lukewarm water by the teaspoon.) Let the machine continue for 45 to 60 seconds to knead most of the dough into a large ball that cleans the sides of the bowl; expect some dangling bits. Press on the finished dough; it should feel medium-soft and tacky but should not stick to your finger.

3. Alternatively, to make the dough by hand: Combine the sugar, baking powder and flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture. Slowly stir with a wooden spoon, moving from the center toward the rim, to work in all the flour. (Add lukewarm water by the teaspoon if this doesn’t happen with relative ease.) Keep stirring as a ragged, soft mass forms. Then use your fingers to gather and pat the dough together into a ball. Transfer to a work surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until smooth, fingertip-soft and slightly elastic. (You shouldn’t need any additional flour on the work surface if the dough was properly made. Keep kneading, and after the first minute or two, the dough shouldn’t stick to your fingers. If it does, work in a sprinkling of flour.) Press your finger into the dough; the dough should spring back, with a faint indentation remaining.

4. Lightly oil a clean bowl and add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and put in a warm, draft-free place to rise until nearly doubled, 30 to 45 minutes (timing will vary depending on the temperature of the room). The dough is now ready to use.

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5. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate the dough until needed.

Each of 16 servings: 104 calories; 2 grams protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 62 mg. sodium.

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Curried chicken bun filling (Gali ji bao)

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Total time: About 25 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: Makes about 1 1/3 cups filling

Note: If you have a good curry powder, like Sun Brand, feel free to substitute 1 tablespoon for the spices below; decrease the amount of salt if the curry powder contains salt already. Or skip the toasting and grinding by substituting equal amounts of ground spices for the whole ones, using two pinches of black pepper for the peppercorns. The flavors will still be good.

1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seed

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1/4 teaspoon cumin seed

1/8 teaspoon fennel seed

3 black peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne

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1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 pinch of ground cloves

1 pinch of ground cinnamon

1 large shallot, chopped ( 1/4 cup)

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1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons water

1 tablespoon canola oil

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2/3 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, diced into 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons coconut milk

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2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1. In a small, dry skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander seed, cumin seed, fennel seed and peppercorns until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Grind the spices using a clean coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

2. Transfer the spices to a food processor or an electric mini-chopper and add the cayenne, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, shallot, ginger, garlic and water. Process to a paste, scraping down the sides occasionally. Alternatively, pound the ingredients, omitting the water, using a mortar and pestle; add the water to the pulverized aromatics to make a paste. Transfer the spice paste to a small bowl and set aside near the stove.

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3. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the spice paste and gently cook, stirring frequently, until it has darkened and become richly fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken, salt and sugar, stirring to combine well. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until the chicken is cooked halfway through. Add the coconut milk, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the chicken is done and has released some of its juices. Cook for 1 minute more to intensify the flavors. Give the cornstarch mixture a stir and add it to the skillet. Stir to distribute well and cook for about 30 seconds, until the filling has thickened.

4. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool completely before using. The filling can be prepared up to 2 days in advance, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated. Return to room temperature before using.

Each tablespoon of filling: 35 calories; 3 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 9 mg. cholesterol; 65 mg. sodium.

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Pan-fried pork and scallion mini buns (Sheng jian baozi)

Total Time: 45 minutes plus rising time

Servings: Makes 32 mini buns

Note: You can find ground pork with a higher fat content at many Asian markets, or ask your butcher to grind fat into regular ground pork (you want about 20% fat). Or substitute regular ground pork. Ground beef chuck or chicken thigh may be substituted for the pork in this recipe. Regardless, fatty, rich ground meat makes for better, succulent buns. Shaoxing rice wine and Chinkiang vinegar are available at Chinese and most Asian markets.

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10 ounces fatty ground pork, coarsely chopped to loosen

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1/4 cup finely chopped Chinese chives or scallions (white and green parts)

1/4 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon salt

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1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon light (regular) soy sauce, plus additional (optional) for dipping

2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

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2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon water

1 1/4 pounds basic yeast dough (recipe above), preferably made with unbleached flour

1 tablespoon finely julienned fresh ginger

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1/4 cup Chinkiang vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Chile oil, optional

Canola oil

1. To make the filling, combine the pork, minced ginger and Chinese chives in a medium bowl. Use a fork or spatula to stir and lightly mash the ingredients together.

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2. In a small bowl, combine the salt, white pepper, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and water and stir to combine well. Pour over the meat mixture, then vigorously stir to fully incorporate. Cover the filling with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight, returning it to room temperature before assembling the buns.

3. Transfer the dough to a very lightly floured work surface, gather it into a ball if needed, and then pat it to flatten it into a thick disk. Cut the disk in half and cover half with plastic wrap or an inverted bowl to prevent drying while you work on the other half. (If your kitchen is very warm or the dough rises quickly, refrigerate the remaining half while you work on the first half.)

4. Roll the dough half into a 12- to 14-inch log, then cut it crosswise into 16 pieces. (Halve the log first to make it easier to cut into even-size pieces. The tapered end pieces should be cut a little longer than the rest.) Lightly roll each piece between your hands into a ball and then use the palm of one hand to flatten it into a one-fourth-inch-thick disk, moistening your hands with a little water if the dough becomes too dry.

5. Use an Asian dowel-style rolling pin to roll the pieces into circles about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, rolling the outer one-half-inch edge of the circle very thin, like a tortilla (the center of the circle -- about 1 inch -- will remain thicker). Rotate the circle as you roll the outer edge with the pin to form a perfect circle. Alternatively, you can press out the circles by hand, using your fingers to flatten the center and edges, though the circles may not be as perfect. The finished circle will be thick, and it will rise as it sits. Lay the finished circles out on your work surface, lightly dusting their bottoms with flour if you fear they will stick.

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6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly dust with flour. To assemble the buns, hold a dough circle in a slightly cupped hand. Use a bamboo spatula, dinner knife or spoon to center about 2 teaspoons of filling on the dough circle, pressing down very gently and keeping about one-half to three-fourths inch of the dough clear on all sides; your hand will automatically close slightly. Use the thumb of the hand cradling the bun to push down the filling while the fingers of the other hand pulls up the dough edge and pleats and pinches the rim together to form a closed satchel. Completely enclose the filling by pinching and twisting the dough closed. Place the finished bun, pleated side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough circles and filling. Loosely cover the buns with plastic wrap and set aside until almost doubled in size, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the temperature of the room.

7. While the buns rise, divide the julienned ginger and vinegar between 2 communal bowls. Taste and, if the vinegar is too tart, add water by the teaspoon. Set them at the table along with the soy sauce and chile oil for guests to mix their own sauce.

8. To pan-fry the buns, use a medium or large nonstick skillet. Heat the skillet(s) over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of canola oil for a medium skillet and 1 1/2 tablespoons for a large one. Add the buns 1 at a time, arranging them, pleated side up, a half-inch apart; they will expand during cooking. The buns will need to be cooked in batches. (In general, medium skillets will fit 8 or 9 buns; large skillets will fit 12 or 13 buns.) Fry the buns for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they are golden or light brown on the bottom. Use your fingers to gently lift them to check the color.

9. Holding the lid close to the skillet to lessen the spattering effect of water hitting hot oil, carefully add enough water to come up the side of the buns by one-fourth inch, about one-fourth cup. The water and oil will sputter a bit. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil, placing it very slightly ajar to allow steam to escape, so condensation doesn’t fall on the buns and perhaps cause their collapse. Let the water bubble away until it is mostly gone, about 6 minutes.

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10. When you hear sizzling noises (a sign that most of the water is gone), remove the lid. Let the dumplings fry, uncovered, for about 1 minute, until the bottoms are brown and crisp. At this point, you can serve the buns, crisp bottoms up, like pot stickers. Or you can use chopsticks to flip each bun over (separate any that are sticking together first) and then fry the other side for about 45 seconds, until golden.

11. Remove from heat and wait for the cooking action to cease, then transfer the buns to a serving plate. Display them golden side up. Serve with the gingered vinegar, chile oil and soy sauce. Eat these buns with chopsticks -- they’re a little greasy on the fingers. Leftover buns can be refrigerated and reheated with a touch of oil and a bit of water in a nonstick skillet.

Each mini bun: 92 calories; 3 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 6 mg. cholesterol; 92 mg. sodium.

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Barbecue pork filling (Char siu haam)

Total time: About 15 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: Makes about 1 1/3 cups filling

Note: For spectacular buns, make this filling with homemade char siu, or barbecue pork. The filling can easily be made using store-bought char siu, available at Chinese restaurants and many Chinese markets, as well as at Trader Joe’s (labeled “Chinese-style pork”). Shaoxing rice wine is available at Chinese and most Asian markets. If you use store-bought pork, wait to salt the filling after it is done as the meat is often well seasoned already.

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1 tablespoon sugar

1 pinch salt

1 pinch ground white pepper

1 tablespoon light (regular) soy sauce

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2 teaspoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon water

2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil

2 scallions, chopped, white and green parts

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1/2 pound char siu, homemade or store-bought, diced into 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch pieces

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

1. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, salt, pepper, soy sauce, oyster sauce and water. Stir to dissolve the sugar and set aside.

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2. In a skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the scallions, and cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic and slightly softened, about 30 seconds. Add the pork and combine well. Add the sauce and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, until the pork is heated through.

3. Meanwhile, add the Shaoxing rice wine to the dissolved cornstarch. When the pork is warm through, add the wine and cornstarch mixture. Cook for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until the mixture has come together into a mass that you can mound. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool at room temperature before using, about 45 minutes. The filling may be prepared up to 2 days in advance, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated. Return to room temperature before using.

Each tablespoon: 41 calories; 2 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 144 mg. sodium.

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Steamed filled buns (Zheng bao)

Total time: About 1 hour, plus rising time

Servings: 16 medium buns

Note: With the dough and filling prepared, here’s how to bring them together for steamed filled buns. This recipe requires 16 (3-inch) squares of parchment, cut from a larger sheet. Asian-style wooden dowels for rolling are generally available at Asian markets. To reheat leftover buns, steam them for 5 to 8 minutes. Leftover buns can be refrigerated up to a week or frozen up to a month.

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1 recipe basic yeast dough

1 recipe barbecue pork or curried chicken filling

1. Transfer the dough to a very lightly floured work surface, gather it into a ball and then pat it to flatten it into a thick disk. Cut the disk in half and cover half with plastic wrap or an inverted bowl to prevent drying while you work on the other half. (If your kitchen is very warm or the dough rises quickly, refrigerate the remaining half while you work on the first half.)

2. Roll the dough half into a 12-inch log, then cut it crosswise into 8 pieces. (Halve the log first to make it easier to cut into even-size pieces. The tapered end pieces should be cut a little longer than the rest.) Lightly roll each piece between your hands into a ball and then use the palm of one hand to flatten it into a one-fourth-inch-thick disk, moistening your hands with a little water if the dough becomes too dry.

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3. Use an Asian dowel-style rolling pin to roll the pieces into circles about 3 1/4 inches in diameter, rolling the outer one-half- to three-fourths-inch edge of the circle very thin, like a tortilla (the center of the circle -- about 1 inch -- will remain thicker). Rotate the circle as you roll the outer edge with the pin to form a perfect circle. Alternatively, you can press out the circles by hand, using your fingers to flatten the center and edges, though the circles may not be as perfect. The finished circle will rise as it sits. Lay the finished circles out on your work surface, lightly dusting their bottoms with flour if you fear they will stick.

4. To assemble the buns, hold a dough circle in a slightly cupped hand. Use a spoon or fork to center about 4 teaspoons of filling on the dough circle, pressing down very gently and keeping about one-half to three-fourths inch of the dough clear on all sides; your hand will automatically close slightly. Use the thumb of the hand cradling the bun to push down the filling; using the fingers of the other hand, pull up the dough edge and pleat and pinch the rim together to form a closed satchel. Completely enclose the filling by pinching and twisting the dough closed.

5. Place the finished bun on a piece of parchment, pleated side up. Repeat with the remaining dough circles and loosely cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel until puffed and nearly doubled in size, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the temperature in the room. Meanwhile, work on the other dough half to form the remaining buns.

6. When the buns are almost ready, prepare the steaming tray. Place the buns on the tray, spacing them 1 inch apart and 1 inch away from the wall of the steamer. Cover the buns and steam until puffed and the dough is cooked through, about 15 minutes.

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7. Use a metal spatula to transfer the buns, still on their parchment paper squares, to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Repeat steaming until all the buns are cooked.

8. Arrange the buns, still on the parchment, on a platter and serve hot or warm. Remove the parchment before eating the buns out of hand.

Each pork-filled bun: 157 calories; 5 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 10 mg. cholesterol; 250 mg. sodium.

Each chicken-filled bun: 150 calories; 6 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 147 mg. sodium.

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