Last weekend good friends, the lovely Yang sisters (Rachel and Mei) invited me over for a Taiwanese style bake off. Both are talented cooks, and they indulged my desire to make a popular Taiwanese snack food I had seen them post on Facebook — golden pan-fried buns, known in Chinese as 水煎包 shui jian bao (and also, confusingly, as 生煎包 sheng jian bao).
Actually, I kind of invited myself over. And I am glad I did. While the men discussed investment and careers, our younger kids watched DVDs and ran amok (pausing only to pick themselves up from the occasional stumble) the teenagers disappeared into bedrooms for chatting, and us ladyfolk donned aprons and got to work in the kitchen rolling and folding several dozen shui jian bao. While chatting, of course. It was so much fun. And the best part was eating the golden bottomed buns together, and then looking forward to leftovers for lunch the next day.
Technically, like many dishes sold in Taipei, shui jian bao is not really Taiwanese, but versions are found throughout the city. Rachel guesses it probably hails from Shanghai as there is a version made there but “it is a bit different in Taiwan”. Her favourite Taipei shui jian bao are from a vendor at the Tung-hwa night markets. I have two favourites: a shop opposite the Yung-chung wet markets, and another poised at the busy intersection of Xinyi Road Section 3/4, and Guangfu South Road.
I had just assumed that shui jian bao was kind of like a baozi (包子), a steamed bun with filling. But from making it, I realized that it is much more involved. This recipe was given to Rachel by the wife of a Taiwanese diplomat. It is unusual in that it combines two recipes: one for the shui jian bao bun mixture and a second for noodles (燙麵麵團， tang mian mian tuan).
Rachel kneads her dough using a breadmaker (easier for old hands, she laughs but I can see that the breadmaker really saves a lot of effort). If you don’t have one, use an electric beater with a dough hook. Or make by hand, and be prepared to do some heavy kneading.
Shui jian bao
600g plain flour (medium flour)
6g yeast (one sachet)
8g baking powder
1. Add the water and oil to the breadmaker, then the flour, yeast and baking powder.
2. Turn the breadmaker on to the dough cycle, and allow it to knead slowly to combine. This mixture is quite stiff so it will take a while to turn into a smooth, elastic ball – around15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, make the tang mian mian tuan.
Tang Mian Mian Tuan
300g plain flour (medium flour)
90ml boiling water
105ml cold water
1. Put the flour, salt and oil into a large bowl. (Yes, the oil required is exactly 37.5ml, and we all wondered at that!) Mix briefly to combine.
2. Pour in 90ml of hot water that has just been boiled. Stir to combine. (This will help make the dough more chewy.)
3. Measure 105ml of room temperature water and add to the dough mixture. Stir and knead to combine, manipulating it until it has become a smooth ball. (You may notice that this mixture is a lot softer and lighter in colour than the first bun dough.)
4. Add this dough to the breadmaker, on top of the shui jian bao dough. The two will eventually merge into one. Allow the doughs to continue to the end of the dough cycle, around 90 minutes.
5. Leave in the dough machine, or else put in an oiled bowl with a wet tea towel on top and place in a warm place. Leave to rest for around 45 minutes until the dough has doubled in size.
1kg pork mince
1 bunch of shallots, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon or more five spice powder
dash of sesame oil
Ingredients are approximate … the amount used will vary according to the size of the shallots, or other vegetables you are using (cabbage is more usual but was not in season when we were making this, so Rachel and Mei substituted shallots). The trick is to fry a small amount of mixture up and then taste it. The meat filling needs to be quite salty, because it will contrast with the fluffy, flavour-neutral outer dough.
A note on pork mince: in general, the fattier the better. Lean mince will not create a juicy filling, but you can add a few spoons of oil to add a bit more fat (although it is not quite the same). Pork mince bought from a Chinese butcher is best, as pork from Western supermarkets does not usually ‘smell’ the same (I am not sure why). Rachel and Mei buy their pork from Costco. It isn’t as fatty as they would like, but the taste (and smell) is good and the price is quite reasonable, too!
To make the mixture, combine all ingredients, fry up a little bit in a frypan, taste a bit, adjust if necessary, then set aside in the fridge until needed.
To make the buns
1. Punch down the dough. Cut in half. Put half aside, covered in a damp tea towel.
2. Using the other half, gently shape it into a log. Using a knife, cut into rounds not quite 1cm thick by 5cm diameter (roughly).
3. Using a rolling pin (smaller ones sold in Asian grocery stores work best), roll into rounds. This is not as straightforward as you might think, because the trick is to stretch the edges, leaving the inside of the circle plump and fat. While making a perfect circle, of course. The circles are quite large, almost 10cm in diameter. Rachel showed me a trick of holding the dough circle with your left hand, and moving it around in a counter clockwise direction as your right hand rocks the rolling pin back and forth.
4. When you have a pile of round, doily like ‘skins’ then it is time to wrap them up. Put a round in the palm of your left hand, and fill with the meat mixture. Be generous with the meat mixture, as the outer dough will expand once cooked.
5. Using your right hand, pinch folds in the dough, stretching upwards and moving around counter clockwise. As your pleat and fold, push the meat mixture down with your left thumb. It is up to you how many folds you make. At the famous Din Tai Fung the chefs religiously complete 18 chrysanthemum folds in each tiny xiaolongbao dumpling. Rachel said she doesn’t worry too much about the number, which is a good thing as it is surprisingly hard for me to make more than ten.
6. To finish the dumpling, join the last fold together with the beginning. Then, working in the same counter clockwise direction, twist them around further and you there you have a finished dumpling. Mei finishes hers with a flourish and indent made by her finger. (Meanwhile, I’m lucky if mine hold together.) Rachel assures me it doesn’t matter because they all look the same once they are cooked, but I think she is just being generous: I can still tell which ones have Mei’s signature finish.
Cooking the shui jian bao
1. You will need a large, flat-bottomed fry pan with a lid. A wok is not suitable for this purpose as its base is too curved.
2. Coat the bottom of the frypan evenly with a small amount of oil. You can use a pastry brush for this purpose. But the frypan onto a medium heat, and then carefully position the dumplings in the pan. Make sure they are not too close together, as they will expand on cooking.
3. Fry the buns gently until their bottoms are a light golden colour (around 2 to 3 minutes). Then add some water into the pan. The quantity is not exact, but needs to reach around 1/3 of the way up each dumpling. (Rachel used around 130ml, but this would be more or less depending on the size of your frypan.)
4. Place the lid on the frypan and continue to cook until the water has nearly evaporated and the buns have puffed up and expanded. This can take between 10 to 15 minutes. Lift the lid and sprinkle on a teaspoon or two of sesame seeds. Close the lid and cook for a further 2 to 5 minutes.
5. Carefully lift out the shui jian bao onto a plate. Best served hot.