Monday, September 15, 2014

Utterly delicious steam-fried buns from Shandong

When I was a student in Taipei back in the late 70’s, I became somewhat of a connoisseur of street foods and snacks. 

As I got to know the city better, I discovered that tiny restaurants had been carved out of little spaces between shops in the downtown area’s side streets and alleys, and, in my humble opinion, this was where most of the best eating was to be found. These foods were always simple, just a few specialties of the house, and so they were usually things that had been made day-in day-out for decades by the same folks. They had their recipes down pat, and it showed.

Shandong delight
These lovely snacks called shuijian bao were on my regular Must Eat menu and are beloved in their native Shandong, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. The filling is always meat - and usually pork - flavored with ginger, green onions, and other seasonings. Also, the bread wrapper is thinner than that of most baozi, is slightly chewier, and it boasts a toasty golden bottom. Crispy on the bottom, soft on top, and juicy in the center, these are marvels. I figured that they were little more than baozi that had been pan-fried, but, as I tried over the years to re-create them, I discovered that a secret was involved. 

A sweet old gentleman from Shandong's capital city of Jinan (if I remember correctly) made my favorites. He ran his own little hole in the wall as a one man operation, wrapping the baozi, steam-frying them, selling them, bussing the tables, and doing the washing up all by himself. He sold nothing but shuijian bao, and he must have amassed a mint over the years, because his were the best and he had a steady stream of happy customers. Goodness knows what he did with the money because the greasy spots on his walls never changed, but no one cared - we were just there for the food.
Crunchy, toasty bottoms

His freshly-wrapped baozi were placed on a round, oil-slicked iron griddle that had probably been around since the day he started the business, so big and black and shiny that nothing ever stuck to it. He’d pour boiling water from an aluminum tea kettle over the buns, slap a tall lid over them, and let them steam until a steady crackling sound informed him that it was time to remove the cover. The bottoms of the baozi would then fry to an aromatic crust, and I would be standing there with all his other fans, cash in hand, ready to snag them the moment they left the griddle.

It took me many years to figure out the secret, because every recipe I’ve tried called for regular steamed bread dough, and this always left a sticky, undercooked pocket at the top. I tried adjusting the heat, reducing the size of the shuijian bao, increasing the steaming time and water, and so forth, but nothing worked.

And then enlightenment happened: I made hot-water dough — just like for steamed jiaozi — and added a yeast mixture to that. Perfection first time around. What happens is that the flour becomes partially cooked, and so the steam just needs to puff it up a bit. That, my friends, is the secret.

Make extra and freeze them. They go very fast.

Steamed-fried buns
Shuǐjiān bāo 水煎包
Shandong, Beijing, and Shanghai
Makes 24 baozi

3 cups Chinese flour (or 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup pastry)
2 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
cup warm water
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (or so) Chinese flour for kneading and shaping

2 small bundles cellophane noodles (fensi)
Warm water, as needed
1½ pounds ground pork (15% fat) or dark turkey meat, chilled
1½ cups chopped green onions
6 tablespoons finely minced ginger
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup mild rice wine
1½ teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ tablespoons cornstarch

Spray oil
Oil for frying
Boiling water, as needed

1. Make the wrappers according to the directions for steamed breads through Step 2. Divide the dough into 24 even pieces, roll these into balls, and flatten them. Make 4-inch baozi wrappers by flattening the balls and then rolling the discs out from the center toward the edge, which will leave a little bump in the center. Cover the wrappers with a damp towel or plastic wrap.

Fensi with meat
2. Soak the cellophane noodles in the warm water for around 10 minutes, or until they are soft and pliable. Drain the noodles well and then chop them very finely.

3. In a medium work bowl, mix the chopped cellophane noodles with the rest of the filling ingredients. Stir the filling in one direction until the meat is light, fluffy, and a bit sticky. The filling can be covered and chilled if you are not using it right away. Divide the filling into 24 even pieces and roll these into balls.

Make baozi
4. Lightly grease a baking sheet with spray oil. Working on one baozi at a time, place a ball of filling in the center of a baozi wrapper and pleat the wrapper over the filling. (It's all right if there are a few tears or open spots on top for shuijianbao, as they won't leak.) Place the filled baozi on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers and filling until you have 24 baozi. These can be made ahead of time and frozen at this point — they will not have to be defrosted first and will require about the same amount of cooking time. Let the baozi rise for around 20 minutes.
Steam-fry the buns

5. Place a large, well-seasoned, flat frying pan over medium heat. When it is hot, film the bottom of the pan with enough oil that it runs around freely. Return the pan to the heat and arrange the baozi in the pan so that they around ½ inch apart, as they will rise some more as they cook. (The buns will have to be cooked in a couple of batches.) Pour in enough boiling water so that there is around ¾ inch in the bottom of the pan. Immediately cover the pan closely and cook the baozi until the steam no longer emerges from under the lid and you can hear the sound of the oil popping. 

6. Remove the cover carefully and pointed away from you, as water might drip down, hit the hot fat, and explode. Gently shake the skillet and use a flat spatula as necessary to carefully loosen the buns, and then continue to fry them until their bottoms are a golden brown. Jerk the pan as they crisp up to loosen the buns, and then turn them out so that the crispy bottoms are on top. Serve immediately.

Monday, September 8, 2014

How to form and fill baozi

Last week we looked at how to make basic steamed bread. Today it is all about steamed filled buns, or baozi. This is China’s answer to the sandwich, only better. Hot and juicy, snack food just doesn’t get any better. 

Most parts of China have their own takes on this delicious way with steamed bread and filling: Guangdong’s char siu bao, for example, with their reddish sweet-salty pork filling, are standard issue in dim sum restaurants, and near the mouth of the Yangtze they are filled with nothing but vegetables, packed with meat, or turned into tiny morsels packed with broth called xiaolongbao. Up north around Beijing and Shandong, baozi are often very large, stuffed with pork or sweet paste, and meant to stick to your ribs.
Step 1

These might look daunting if you have never made them before, but the simple truth is that they are a snap to make. All it takes is an understanding of the basic principles and a bit of practice. After that, the sky’s the limit.

A quick note on the nomenclature, before we get any further: These are often simply referred to as bao in English, but in Chinese, they are called either baozi or something-something bao — like xiaolongbao or shuijianbao — but never plain old “bao.
Step 2

Now, on to the directions:

Follow the last week’s directions on A Steamed Bread Primer all the way to the end. Once that is done, we can start shaping and filling the buns. (We will discuss the insides later – today it is all about learning how to fill and wrap baozi.)
Step 3

1. Work on one piece at a time and keep the rest of the dough covered so that they do not dry out. Cut the dough into as many pieces are directed. Lightly roll the piece into a ball between the palms of your hands.  

2. Press down on the ball with the palm of your hand to flatten it into a disc.

Step 4
3. Lift up a side of the disc with the left hand* and use a Chinese rolling pin in the other to roll the disc out into a thin circle. Do this by rolling down one edge of the disc from near the center all the way out to the edge. Turn the 
disc counterclockwise  (or clockwise, if you are left-handed) about 45 degrees, meaning that you will do this 8 times before you get back to the starting point, while you continue to roll out the dough. This way you will end up with a fairly even circle. Keep rolling and turning the dough until you have a circle of the desired diameter.
Step 5

4. As you roll out this circle, leave the exact center alone so that you end up with what looks like an egg fried sunny-side up.

Step 6
5. The best baozi have an even layer of bread around the ball of filling, so it is important to make the top as thin as possible. However, you are going to be pleating that dough, which naturally makes the top pretty thick. This is what I have discovered: You can reduce this thickness by lightly pulling up on the edge all the way around. This makes the edge very thin and will give the final circle the look of a sombrero.
Step 7

6. To fill the baozi, make a cup shape with your left hand and poke the circle into that cup, so that the base of the dough is cuddled up against your middle finger.

Step 8
7. Carefully place the filling inside the center of the dough. Do not get any filling on the edges, as the oil in the filling will not allow you to seal the dough.

8. Pleat the top of the baozi closed: Do this by using the thumb of your left hand to poke down the filling while you pinch the dough closed with the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger of your right hand.
Step 9

9. Work your way around the circle, pinching with the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers, while the thumb of your other hand keeps the filling away from the pleats.
Step 10

10. If you keep all of the pleats controlled with your thumb, pointer, and middle fingers, you will end up with a pointed top.

11. If you release the pleats as you go along, you will end up with a little depression in the top, which is also pretty. Place the filled baozi on oiled steamer paper and let them rise once more before steaming.

Step 11

* These directions are for right-handed people. If you are a lefty, reverse the hand directions.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A steamed bread primer

I’ve been making lots of steamed breads lately, especially the filled buns called baozi or bao. But before I start talking about the fillings, I thought I’d provide another quick class on making your own fast-rising bread dough, talk about how to shape the wrappers, and give you a step-by-step guide to filling these buns. Baozi may seem daunting at first, but hang with me, because once you understand their little secrets, you will be making these all the time.

Making flakes
First, and as always, get the right flour. American flour is way too high in gluten to give you a tender crumb. It is so high that I have found the best way to approximate Chinese flour is to use 2 parts all-purpose flour to 1 part pastry flour. Memorize that simple recipe, because that is the key to making Chinese-style pastas and breads. You can also use Korean flour straight out of the bag, since it has around the same amount of gluten as Chinese flour, but of much higher quality. Almost all Chinese breads and pastas call for white flour, so if you want to use whole wheat, first master the basic recipe and then add the whole wheat flour in increments because it will give you a totally different texture.

Second, use the right water. I always filter my water because we have really hard tap water (meaning it’s full of chemicals that give it a harsh taste). If you have a water softener, that will make the water salty, and in that case bottled water will taste better.

Ready to knead
Third, have the right tools. The main things you will need are a very flat surface for kneading and shaping the dough, a pastry scraper, and a Chinese rolling pin. The best place to work on dough in most kitchens will be the underside of your pullout cutting board. Most people forget that the bottom of that whacked up board is smooth, which makes it perfect for this job. (If it has been marred, just sand it down and treat the surface with mineral oil, which will not turn rancid.)

If you are short (about 5’6”/168 cm tall or less), flip the board over and return it to its slot, pulling it out just far enough to give you a stable work surface. If you are tall, wet a dishcloth, place it on your kitchen counter or a very heavy table, and then set the cutting board on top of that – the cloth will help stabilize the board.

Chinese rolling pins can be purchased in just about any Chinese market, hardware store, or kitchen supply shop. If you want to make your own, buy a 12-inch dowel that is 1 inch thick. If it is not perfectly smooth, sand it evenly (including the ends) and coat it with mineral oil; after it has absorbed the oil, wipe the rolling pin dry. Never put wooden implements in the dishwasher, as it dries them out, which will in turn make them crack. Wash your wooden tools by hand, wipe them dry, and then let them air dry before you put them away.

Making pasta and bread dough

Punch it down
Note that when you add cool liquid to the flour in a bowl, you should stir it in until it forms flakes. This makes the dough much easier to work on because you will not have a bunch of wet spots and lots of flour to deal with while you are trying to knead it later on. So, first stir the water into the flour, preferably with chopsticks, which glide through the flakes easily.

The next step consists of kneading the dough. Dump the flakes of dough out onto your board and scoot them together into a pile. Knead these into dough by working them with the heels of your hands (the base of your palm near the wrist) and your fingertips – these are the cooler parts of your hands, while the palms are the hottest. If the dough needs more water, sprinkle it on, rather than pour it. If it is too wet, sprinkle on the flour and work it in. 
Fold over edges

My recipes tend to err on the side of having to need more flour worked in. There is a reason for that: This is much easier to do than to add water, and it will result in a lighter crumb.

As you learn to knead, get into the habit of holding a pastry scraper in your dominant hand to scrape up the dough, corral it into one area, and flip it over. The other hand can do the kneading and the sprinkling of flour. When the dough has come together nicely, put down the scraper and use both hands to knead the dough until it is smooth. You will know it is ready when it no longer sticks to the board or your hands. Check it by pinching a small piece – it should feel like an earlobe.

Raised dough

Fully risen 2nd time
If you are making yeast dough, clean out your work bowl, dry it thoroughly, and rub the inside with some oil. Toss the ball of dough into the bowl so that it is completely coated with a light film of oil, as this will keep the dough from sticking to the bowl. Don’t use too much oil, though, as the dough still needs to have enough traction to climb up the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl and place it in a warm place out of any drafts.

When the dough has risen enough the first time, you should be able to poke two fingers into the center, and the dough will not immediately close up the holes. Punch down the dough down to deflate it. Then, grab the edges of the dough and fold them toward the center. Flip the dough over, cover the bowl, and let it rise a second time.

After the second rising, the dough is ready to shape. Punch it down, form it into a smooth ball or log as needed, and place it on your lightly floured board. Keep the dough covered whenever you are not working on it.

Next week: How to shape and fill baozi.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Being a vegetarian in Xinjiang, plus tomatoes and eggs

While the areas along the lower Yangtze are home to a vibrant Buddhist food culture that combines ingenuity with a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients, China’s desert lands pose a challenge for those who prefer meatless meals. 

At least, that was our discovery when my husband and I, then very much dedicated vegetarians, traveled there in the fall of 2001. The problem really wasn’t the lack of vegetables — we ate well, that is for sure — but everyone else in the tour group (nay, the entire Northwest, it seemed) ate little else but meat, and so whenever a restaurant had to think up something to serve just the two of us, panic ensued.

Grape/cherry tomatoes: yum
The assumption by the waitstaff and the cooks was that we were undernourished because we were not consuming enough protein, and so we were given combinations of tomatoes with eggs at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For the first few days it was kind of funny, and it became a running joke, whether we would have tomatoes and eggs, or eggs and tomatoes, or tomato and egg soup, or egg and tomato over noodles, or some other variation on this increasingly monotonous theme.

By the second week, I had had enough and insisted that I be able to order my own food. The tour guide assumed I was going to bankrupt them with wild demands, but I pointed out that vegetarian dishes were always the cheapest things on the menu. Over the next few weeks, we ate great food while managing to completely avoid both tomatoes and eggs. 

Easy slicing: Step 1
It took me about four years before I could even face the idea of Tomatoes and Eggs again, but when I did, I fell in love all over once more. This is so good that it’s popular all over North China, as well as the Northwest.

There are a few secrets to making these two ingredients turn into something extraordinarily good: 

First, the tomatoes have to be deliciously ripe and the eggs must be fresh and free-range. 

Second, the tomatoes should be in large enough pieces that they do not mush up, as this allows them to retain their individuality. 

I mean, really easy
Third — and this is where most restaurant versions drop the ball — the tomatoes have to be fried in oil with aromatics and a touch of sugar until they almost caramelize, which makes their juices concentrate into a thick marmalade. This juice is what then coats each yellow egg curd and makes it all so luscious. 

Finally, season this with salt rather than soy sauce to keep the flavors sharp and the colors bright.

If you love jiaozi, consider using this as an especially wonderful filling, one that is often enjoyed in the Beijing area as a homey treat. Just cool the finished dish and then chop up any pieces that are larger than ½ inch all around. That’s all there is to it.

Fry with aromatics
Tomatoes and eggs
Xīhóngshì chǎo jīzĭ  西紅柿炒雞子
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound very tasty, red tomatoes of any kind (see Tip)
5 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped, with the whites in one pile and the greens in another
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Cut the tomatoes into pieces about 1 inch wide and ½ inch thick. If you are using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. For a cool way to easily cut a bunch of tomatoes in half (courtesy of Chef Joshua Stokes on Grill A Chef), place some of the tomatoes on a plastic rimmed lid. Cover them with another lid of the same size, and then run a sharp knife between the lids. Repeat until all have been sliced. Taste a tomato — if it is very sweet, use ½ teaspoon sugar in Step 2; otherwise, use 1 teaspoon.

2. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, swirl in 3 tablespoons of the oil and all of the salt. Fry the ginger and the whites of the onions until they are golden, and then add the sliced tomatoes. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry them, shaking and turning them over every 30 seconds or so. When the juice reduces to few tablespoons, sprinkle on the sugar and toss the tomatoes. Continue to cook them until you can smell the sugar and bits of caramel have formed on your spatula. Scrape the tomatoes out onto a plate.

The omelet setting up
3. Return the wok to medium-high heat and swirl in the rest of the oil. Stir the onion greens into the eggs and pour the eggs into the wok. Flip the eggs over as they solidify and brown until they have formed a golden omelet. Chop the omelet up with your spatula and then toss in the cooked tomatoes. Serve hot.


-      Cherry and plum tomatoes are my favorites for this since they keep their shape well.

Variation: Some people like to make a creamier dish, where the eggs turn custardy, rather than form large curds. To do this, keep the tomatoes in the wok at the end of Step 2 and stir the beaten eggs and onion greens into the tomatoes. Lightly toss these together until the eggs have cooked through.