Monday, March 7, 2016

An old Beijing breakfast

Breakfast is simply exciting in China, no matter where you are. It’s always been my favorite meal of the day no matter where I happen to find myself, and when I get to a breakfast heaven like Beijing or Taiwan, things just don't get much better in my book.

Part of the reason for my passion for Chinese breakfasts is the simplicity of it all. You generally are presented with an unadorned meal that is well made, and - according to your appetite or personal feelings on the matter – you can dress it up with lots of chile paste or vinegar or garlic, or you accept it as is and enjoy a milder version.

Making this a balanced & delicious meal
Another reason is the incredible amount of creativity that goes into these offerings. In South China it might be made out of something like rice paste or steamed rice, but in the North, steamed breads and pastas are the kings of breakfast. Plain steamed breads (mantou), filled steamed buns (baozi), and flower rolls (which are steamed bread dough rolled up around a thinnish filling of some sort) are at one end of this spectrum, while plain flour noodles or wrappers get called into play for everything from filled jiaozi dumplings to pot stickers to noodles soups.

It seems that most of these flour-based dishes originated in Central Asia somewhere before traveling into North China along the Silk Roads and setting root all along China’s far west and upper regions. Records show that although China made do with some sort of native wheat, a much finer strain was introduced long ago from the Fergana Valley, an area that is now divided between what are nowadays known as eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and northern Tajikistan.

These foreign origins can be seen in the character for wheat: mài , which has the character lái (to arrive, to come) over a pictograph of a wheat kernel. Pretty cool, eh? Now you can see why I love this language so much...
Homemade wrappers are easy

Anyway, back to breakfast: Here is a delicious and surprisingly easy way to greet the day that shows those Central Asian roots in another couple of ways. First, there's lamb, which is the meat of choice out among Beijing's Hui Muslims (although you can sub in another favorite - beef - or even go with American dark turkey), and second, there are the carrots that were also brought to China via the upper Silk Roads that snaked across the length of Asia.

One delicious technique here in particular is worth learning: Lots of seasoned water is whipped into the meat. Sichuan peppercorns are whirled with plain old water and then the spices are strained out. This water in turn lends a subtle, piney, faintly numbing background. It doesn't seem possible, but a whole cup of water is easily absorbed by this pound of ground lamb. This results in a much lighter filling and a satisfying puddle of juice in each bun. I’ve also included directions for mincing the meat again with your Chinese knives, as this amplifies its lovely texture. It’s optional, and just so you know, even if you skip this step, these will taste fantastic.
Chop, chop, chop

Try this for breakfast or as a snack with some soy milk, millet congee, or even a cup of coffee. Make extra and freeze them for an even easier treat later on.

Beijing-style steamed lamb buns
Lăo Běijīng yángròu bāo 老北京羊肉包
Makes 16 (4 inch/10cm) baozi

1¼ cups/295 ml warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2½ cups/ Chinese flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking powder

1 pound/450g ground lamb (about 20% fat)
1 cup/235 ml water
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons/25g sweet wheat paste
6 tablespoons/80g toasted sesame oil
¼ cup/50g peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 carrots, grated (about 1 cup/200g)
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
½ bunch cilantro, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger 

Let the yeast foam up to prove it's alive
1. First make the wrappers: Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Allow the yeast to expand for about 10 minutes; if it is not foaming at this point, discard and get some fresher yeast. 

2. Stir the flour and salt together in a large work bowl. Use chopsticks or a wooden spoon to mix in the yeast solution until flakes form. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured smooth surface, and then use a pastry scraper in one hand and your other hand to scrape and knead the dough. When it is elastic and no longer sticks to the board, check the texture: a pinch of the dough should feel like an earlobe. Form the dough into a ball. 

Steamer paper makes things conveninent
3. Clean the work bowl, dry it, and lightly oil both the bowl and the ball of dough. Transfer the dough to the bowl, cover it tightly with some plastic wrap, and place in a warm place to rise until double in size. Punch down the dough and fold the edges in on the ball. Cover the bowl again and let it rise until it is once more double in size. 

4. Turn the dough out onto a clean, smooth work surface and sprinkle with the baking powder. Lightly knead the baking powder into the dough, cover the dough with the plastic wrap and let it rest for around 10 minutes. 

5. Lightly dust the board and roll the dough into a long, even strip 16 inches long. Form the wrappers as shown here. Line two Chinese basket steamers with either steamer paper or cupcake liners; spray the cupcake paper with oil. Set the baskets and cover over a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes to heat them through, and then turn off the heat.

7. To prepare the filling, you can first chop the ground meat again with two Chinese knives as shown on the right until the color becomes paler and the meat feels pasty. Scoop the meat into a medium work bowl. Grind the water and Sichuan peppercorns together in a blender until the spice is pulverized, and then pour the liquid through a fine strainer; discard the solids. Use your hand to gradually mix the water into the meat, which should easily absorb every last drop. Use your hand to mix in the rest of the ingredients until the filling looks even. This makes about 4½ cups/1000 ml filling.
The meat will absorb the seasoned water
8. Fill the wrappers as directed here, using around ¼ cup/32g per bun. Place the buns either in the warmed up steamer baskets to rise for at least 15 minutes, or arrange them on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap and immediately freeze them. (Store frozen buns in a resealable freezer bag and steam for an extra 5 minutes or so.) To cook the fresh buns, set the baskets over rapidly boiling water and steam them for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, but allow them to stay covered in the baskets so that they do not deflate easily. Serve hot. Leftovers can be re-steamed for around 10 minutes.


Don't use whole wheat flour here, as it is too coarse to hold the juicy filling. You can add a bit (maybe a quarter of the total amount), but you really need the elasticity provided by white flour here. Believe me, I've tried.

1 comment:

  1. Being a lazy person, if I am making a large amount of minced meat filling, instead of using the 2 choppers method, I've had success using a stand mixer and a dough hook to achieve that pasty sort of texture.