We made our periodic pilgrimage to Uwajimaya last weekend, partly to shop for tacky Christmas presents but mostly to restock our supply of noodles, tea and chile-garlic sauce. We went to Samurai Noodle for lunch (the new Extra Pork Fat option is astonishing), then spent the next two hours battling our way through all the other people milling around trying to figure out which small red jar might hold the correct form of soybean paste or pickled turnip, or stampeding through the narrow aisles between the Hello Kitty stickers and the Daruma keychains.
The funny thing is, we came home with all this new stuff, all jazzed up about doing some new Chinese dishes or something Indonesian, and the dinner we ended up making didn’t use any of it. How silly. We were going to make a side of stirfried ong choy (water spinach), which we haven’t found anywhere else, but it started to compost itself before we could cook it (drat). We had to have plain spinach instead. And for dinner I made bao, one of my favorite things to eat in the world, with a new filling out of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, which turned out to be the easiest bun filling I’ve ever made and used ingredients we already had around. Go figure. But never fear, we’ll get around to the soybean paste and pickled mustard greens later this week. Stay tuned!
Concerning bao: I love pretty much any kind of bread or dumpling with a savory filling, and bao are even more wonderful made fresh at home than they are off a street vendor’s cart. I’ve made bao with the classic char siu (Chinese roasted pork) filling, cabbage and mushrooms, curried gluten, spiced ground chicken, and whatever else – but this Sichuan filling is not only one of the tastiest I’ve made, it’s also the simplest. You just need a jar of chile-bean paste on hand, and I promise it’s worth hunting down. The dough is the recipe my mother has always used – I don’t remember where it’s from, but it’s the perfect bao dough, lightly sweet and addictively spongy, and I’ve never made any other.
Bao with pork-bean sprout filling
- 4 cups unbleached white flour
- 1 Tbsp dry yeast
- 1 ½ cups warm water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2 Tbsp oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 pound ground pork
- 4 Tbsp oil
- 2 Tbsp chile bean paste
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp sherry
- 1 tsp salt
- 8 oz bean sprouts, roughly chopped
- 8-10 good grinds from a pepper mill
A couple hours before dinner, start the dough: combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a bowl or measuring cup and let it start to foam. Put the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the oil to the yeast mixture, then dump it all into the flour and stir well. Knead 10 minutes or until smooth and resilient. Wash and oil the mixing bowl, put the dough back in, cover with a damp towel and let rise 1 ½ hours or until doubled.
While it rises, make the filling: heat a wok over very high heat and add the oil. Put in the pork and stirfry, breaking it up well, until the meat is cooked and the fat has separated out. Stir in the chile-bean paste, then add the soy, salt and sherry. Add the bean sprouts and stirfry briefly, grind in the pepper, then remove from the heat.
Cut sixteen squares of parchment or wax paper and set out a couple of baking sheets. Divide the bun dough into sixteen pieces. Take a piece and roll it out into a disk about 6 inches across, leaving a slightly thicker area in the center (Barbara Tropp called this the ”belly button”). Place a spoonful of filling into the center, then gather up the edges of the circle and pleat them together. I like to give them a twist, then place the bun gathered-side-down on the sheet, but you might like to leave the twist pointing up. Set each bun on a parchment square. When the sheet is full, lay a towel carefully over the buns and let them rise twenty minutes.
You can steam or bake the buns – I usually do a mix of both, since I don’t have enough room in my steamers for sixteen buns at once. If using a bamboo steamer, find a pot that the steamer fits on snugly. Put in a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Lay the risen buns into the steamer, making sure to give them a little elbow room (otherwise they’ll rise into each other and stick). Cover and place over the boiling water, let steam 12-15 minutes. I don’t recommend checking on them, since sometimes removing the lid too soon makes them collapse.
To bake, just preheat the oven to 350° and stick in the sheet with the risen buns on it. You can use a glaze or egg wash but I don’t care for the effect, myself. Bake until just golden, 12-15 minutes.
Peel off the paper and eat, preferably with a bit of stirfried spinach or cabbage alongside. These make great leftovers – the steamed ones microwave really well, and the baked ones can be wrapped in foil and reheated in the oven. You can never have too much leftover bao – at least, it hasn’t happened to us yet.