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 baoziis 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
⅓ 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. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Use a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook to stir the boiling water into the flour. Knead the dough with the mixer until it is smooth and shiny, adding more flour as needed. Lightly dust a flat surface with some flour and turn the dough out on the board. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes. When it is as soft and supple as an earlobe, clean and dry the mixing bowl and rub a bit of sesame oil around the inside. Place the dough in the bowl and toss it around a couple times to coat it completely. Cover and let rise until it is about double in size. Punch it down and let it rise once again until double in size. 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. While the dough is rising, 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.


  1. Oh, these look like they could be the best of worlds for softly-steamed, then crispy-fried!! YUMmy!!

  2. Hi Carolyn!

    First, thank you so much for sharing this recipe. I encountered the Shandong style bao for the first time a month ago at the San Francisco Fort Mason farmers market. There is a stand there every Sunday called Happy Dumplings that makes these beauties, and after trying several flavors I was completely smitten. They really are something special!

    I tried giving this recipe a go, and well... it didn't go so well! While the filling turned out great, my dough didn't have the right texture or chewiness that I experienced when I tried the bao at the market.

    I think part of the problem was that I got really confused on step one of this recipe. What do you mean when you say "Make the wrappers according to the directions for steamed breads through Step 2."? There is no discussion of wrappers through step two of your steamed bread recipe. I got through Step 2 when I made mine, and once the dough was " smooth and shiny" as you describe, I took it off the hook and pinched off balls to make the wrappers with. I did not go further in the recipe, so I did not knead it or let it rise before stuffing it with the meat filling and pan frying. If you could clarify this step a bit more, I would really appreciate it!

    Finally, when I went to fry the bao I set my electric range on medium heat. However, I forgot to pour in boiling water and poured in regular water. What ended up happening was that because the water needed time to heat up, the bao were in contact with the hot skillet longer than they wanted. When the water evaporated and I started hearing the oil pops, the bottoms of the bao were completely charcoal black. I think the solution here is to pour boiling water, but if you have any other suggestions I would appreciate the help!



    1. Hi Anastasia, and thanks for writing. So glad you share my love for these baozi, but sorry you had difficulty in achieving success. The mistake is all mine: I should have said through Step 4 - please forgive this typo! Yes, you do have to let the dough rise.

      I'll go over your questions one by one, as I think the second time you make these there should be no problem.

      1. The basic directions for the wrappers is the same as for steamed breads, but the ingredients are different. As I mentioned in the headnotes, you are going to be using boiling water here, which will guarantee that the tops of the buns cook through easily. So, follow the link to that recipe and make the dough as directed up to Step 4 so that they have risen well.

      2. Then, divide them into 24 pieces and shape them directed according to the baozi recipe.

      3. Yes, boiling water is necessary to get these steaming rapidly. It also prevents the bottoms from frying right away. Next time try it with the boiling water - and be sure to cover the pan immediately - so that the dough absorbs the water. Also, make sure that the heat is not too high. I suggest medium heat, which will help prevent the buns from scorching.

      4. Then, as soon as they start to fry, remove the lid, which will direct the heat to the bottom of the buns and allow them to brown up. Keep an eye on them so that they don't burn.

      Thanks again for bringing my attention to this mistake!