Baozi from a hutong shop in Beijing
When I arrived in Beijing at around 4 in the afternoon last February, the city was in the midst of a particularly bad pollution streak. Looking out the window from the train going from the airport to the city, the view was apocalyptic – dead-looking trees (it was winter) surrounded by barren dirt, all wrapped in a brown haze.
I went straight to bed that night, but when I woke up, I had to a) eat something and b) brave the pollution. Even though I had been to China before, I wasn’t sure what I would find for breakfast. I also wanted a face mask, so that I could at least delude myself into thinking that I was protecting myself from the vicious pollution.
The hostel I stayed at that first night was sold out of face masks – my first priority, even pre-breakfast. But they pointed me to a convenience store across the street. After I selected a particularly useless face mask (they were sold out of the useful kind), I noticed a steady stream of people coming in to buy steamed buns. I got two and headed back to the hostel, happy to have taken care of my two most pressing needs in one go.
As it turns out, 包子 (baozi) – steamed pork buns – are the breakfast food of choice – at least if you’re going out to breakfast – in Beijing. The ones I got from the convenience store were more of the lunch or snack variety – which is to say, they were about the size of an apple and sold to-go, plopped in a plastic bag for the customer to eat on the run or at home.
It turned out, however, that there are plenty of places to go for breakfast baozi in Beijing, especially around the older part of the city, where I ended up living. Steamed buns – either pork or vegetarian – came in orders of eight, since eight satsuma-sized buns fit on a steamer. The round steamer was brought to the table, and each one cost about a dollar. There was more – these breakfast joints would also have tofu soups and a rice gruel as well as long twists of fried bread. I tried it all, but the pork baozi were the only Beijing breakfast item that found a place in my heart.
Baozi in Beijing are more than breakfast, though. There were also the bun vendors that made buns filled with cabbage, pork, onions and about 30 other kinds of meat and vegetable combinations. When we didn’t have anything in the house for lunch, my husband and I would buy four buns and share them. I liked the carrot one, he always stuck with pork. We became friends with the bun-makers, and one day they taught me how to form the buns, patiently showing me the technique: Cradle the dough in your left hand, push the filling in with your left thumb while rotating the whole package and pulling the edges together with your right hand.
We’ve been back in Portland for six months now, and it was time to finally try my hand at making baozi. They didn’t turn out perfect, but got my husband’s seal of approval and looked fabulous.
How to make baozi
First of all, you’ll need an Asian/Chinese style bamboo steamers. I had just gotten one for Christmas, so I no longer had an excuse for not making buns, but I’d recommend that if you don’t have a steamer, you get one for the buns experiment.
You’ll also need something to put the steamer in. I used a large stock pot that has a deep insert, which allowed me to put in enough water that I wasn’t worried it would boil off during the cooking process. Just a regular stock-pot is fine as well.
You can also use a wok with a wok lid, which is obviously the more traditional approach. If I had a wok lid, that’s what I would use.
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sourdough starter
I love cooking foreign foods, but I also have some quirks when it comes to what gets made in my kitchen. Most importantly, I use whole wheat flour for everything (that galette des rois I made a few weeks ago? Whole wheat flour). I also use a sourdough starter for all of my yeasting needs. So this created a slightly different approach than would be used by most people in China, but it is healthier – also, 100 years ago, Chinese people would have been doing exactly the same thing.
Put about two cups of flour in a bowl.
Mix two tablespoons of sourdough starter in one cup of warm water. Once you have mixed it well, pour the water into the flour, and mix it in with your hand. It most likely won’t be enough to create a dough, so add more warm water until you have a soft dough that is moist but not sticky.
Place a wet cloth over the dough, so that the cloth is actually resting on top of the dough.
Wait 24 hours. The dough should rise, doubling in size or more. Once it’s doubled in size, it’s ready to use.
You can fill the buns with just about anything, but I went for a classic filling: pork.
Half a pound of ground pork
One bunch of green onions
Chop the green onions and mix together with the ground pork. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce and a dash of dark Chinese vinegar (I couldn’t find the vinegar at my local store and didn’t have time to go to the Asian grocery store, so I just left it out and it tasted fine. However, a little vinegar will make it taste better and more ‘authentic’).
Now you’re ready to fill the buns. Take a golf-ball sized piece of dough, create a ball and then flatten it out, so it’s about three inches across. Get a spoonful of filling and place it in the center. Press the filling in with your left thumb and grab the edges of the dough with your right fingers. Use your right fingers to pull the dough up and together while rotating the dough with your left hand and pushing the filling in with your left thumb.
Place the raw buns on the steamer. Each steamer tray should fit eight buns.
Raw baozi ready to start steaming.
Bring the water in your wok or stock pot to a boil. Put the steamer in the pot or wok and steam for 20 minutes.
You’re ready to eat! Prepare some hot pepper flakes and vinegar, and dip your hot buns into the spicy mixture before stuffing them in your mouth!
This recipe will make 16 buns, which is enough for two people if they are starving, and four people if you eat like my husband and I do.
Delightful homemade baozi!