Dim Sum Delight: Char Siu Bao

I’ll never forget the party my in-laws hosted for me when I graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales.

It was a dim sum brunch at King’s Garden Restaurant in Cranston, RI that we held early in the day before the graduation ceremony, which was a gargantuan affair in downtown Providence. Most of what I remember about the day, in fact, came about at the morning party, when my parents had their first exposure to dim sum.

My mother is a notorious omnivore who will try nearly anything once, except maybe fish, which she tends to dislike.

My father has much more conservative tastes, but he has never met a fish he hasn’t liked.

However, one cuisine that he has maintained for years that he dislikes is Chinese. This is despite the fact that I have cooked him Chinese foods many times and he has eaten them and liked them. I think that his early exposure to MSG-laden chop suey and chow mein scarred him, and convinced him that there was nothing good to be had when it came to Chinese food.

I hadn’t bothered to tell him that the party was held in a Chinese restaurant; he didn’t find out until we were stuck in New York City traffic on Friday, on our way up from Maryland to Rhode Island. (For complex and irritating reasons, we ended up moving to Maryland the week before I graduated, so we had to come back for the ceremony.) Dad was complaining as we inched through Connecticut that he had never seen such miserable amounts of cars (that is what happens when you live in West Virginia–you think you know traffic until you come upon New Yorkers escaping the city on Friday)and that he was starving to death, but he didn’t dare stop for fear of never being able to get back on I 95.

My friend, Nikki, was tired of hearing him complain, and glanced at him and said, “Oh, hush, George. You’ve got the food tomorrow to look forward to.” She winked devilishly at my mother, who was holding down the back seat with Zak and I.

“Something special for brunch?” he asked idly.

She smiled brightly and said, “Uh, huh. Chinese food.”

His face sank and his mood plummetted with it.

I could hardly blame her; she hadn’t forgiven him for teasing her about her bridge phobia as we crossed the Tappan Zee, so she took every opportunity after that to needle him.

This was also to be the first time my folks had met Zak’s family en masse–and so not only did they have to contend with strange food first thing in the morning, and Nikki’s cheery ribbing, but they also got to meet the outspoken, gregarious, loud gaggle of gourmands that comprise the Kramers.

The thing is–these folks can eat. A lot. A whole lot. And they make no bones about it. When I was ordering for us, my parents were shocked at the amounts I called for from Emily, the waitress, but they were more shocked when Zak’s dad, Karl, his sister, Laura, and brother, Dan, all started suggesting across the table that I up portions of various delicacies such as coconut pudding, turnip cake and especially, steamed pork buns. (Ah, yes–you knew we had to come to the pork buns eventually, didn’t you?)

Yes, steamed pork buns. For our table of thirteen, I think we had five orders. That is fifteen buns. Or maybe we had six–eighteen buns. That is not taking into account the puddings, the sweet buns, the dumplings, the taro balls, the turnip cake, the spring rolls, the lotus leaf rice packets, the stuffed bean curd and the bowls of hot and sour and wonton soup. My parents’ eyes just kept getting bigger and bigger as the list continued. Steamed sponge cake with orange flavor. Ha gow. Chive dumplings. Every time I called out the name of a specialty to see if anyone wanted it, there was usually one or more takers. Spirited discussion ensued over the merits of this bun or that, or siu mei over ha gow, but in the end, we got nearly one of everything, two of many things and three or more of more things than I think we should admit to.

When the soup came, for the first time since we had gotten there, silence descended on the table as the Kramers took to eating.

My parents tasted the wonton soup with quizzical looks on their faces. The delicate flavor of the broth was not what they were used to, and they didn’t seem to know what to make of the cloudlike wontons enrobing tiny meatballs of pork and shrimp stuffing.

The Kramers had no such problems. They drank down their soups quickly, then resumed chattering, characteristically over where we were going to have dinner. Legal Seafood had been decided upon as a great favorite and we had reservations, but of course, we had to argue over whether or not the venerable establishment had gone downhill in recent years.

My parents stared on silently, whether in shock or amusement, I cannot say.

The first dim sum goodies began to arrive just as Emily cleared the soup dishes.

Stuffed tofu and turnip cake. Definate no-goes in my father’s universe. Even Mom wasn’t thinking any of them looked particularly good. Which was fine with Zak and Dan, because it meant more for them. These plates were soon cleaned, just in time for the flurry of dumpling steamers that began to land like a tiny fleet of invading UFO’s upon our table.

The serious eating began. Chopsticks clattered, chili oil was passed and squabbled over, and enough tea to drown an elephant was drunk. I noticed that Emily was taking care of no other table but ours, even though the restaurant was packed with parties large and small. It didn’t bother her: she was having a grand time chatting with the family, many of whom she had met before, and telling my parents how Zak and I came in for dim sum regularly at least once a week and also ate congee once or twice a week, when school was too rough for me to want to come home and cook. “We keep them well fed for you,” Emily declared as she passed my mother a plate of spring rolls.

The spring rolls were the first victory in the dim sum banquet. Leave it to something deep fried to get my parents’ approval.

My Dad almost even smiled when he bit into its crispy, paper-thin wrapper.

Mom started getting into the groove. She took up with the siu mei, noting that it tasted kind of like sausage-stuffed noodles.

Zak’s Grandpa and Grandma looked on with beaming approval–they had travelled to China many times over the years and were experts in what was good and what wasn’t. They began guiding my parents, and slowly, even Dad decided that ha gow was pretty tasty, especially with some of that chili oil and soy sauce business on it.

And then, floating down like billowy cumulous clouds, the buns appeared.

Dad looked askance at them and said, “What’s that?”

Nikki grinned and said, “These here, George are the best damned barbeque pork sammiches you’re ever gonna taste. Now hush up and eat one.”

She plonked one unceremoniously on his plate and nodded at it, waiting to watch him eat it.

Mom needed no more urging than those words. She took one, peeled off the paper and took her first bite. She closed her eyes and smiled, chewing contentedly. “It’s good,” she whispered as Emily refilled her tea. “Of course it’s good,” Emily chirped. “We Chinese, we don’t keep making the same dishes forever if they are not good.”

Dad took his up, took a bite, and nodded, the corner of his mouth quirked. “Not bad,” he allowed. “Not bad at all.”

Which meant that it was really quite good, but he didn’t want to admit that, because it would mean he liked Chinese food.

Meanwhile, the pile of buns was dwindling, and a plate with two passed in front of Dad’s nose.

In an uncharacteristic show of gluttony, he snatched one of the two and set it on his plate, an action which spoke more eloquently than words that these buns were indeed, the best damned barbeque pork sammiches he had ever eaten.

Emily saw it, grinned like the Cheshire Cat and winked at me. I had told her that my parents had not ever had dim sum, and she had said that I needn’t worry. “Everyone loves dim sum. You’ll see. And if nothing else, we can feed them pork buns until they bust. I’ve never seen anyone who doesn’t like char siu bao.”

As in many things–on this point, Emily was very right.

Chinese Steamed Buns

This recipe looks hard because it is so long, but that is because I went out of my way to describe every step carefully, so you can follow it as well as you can by watching me here today. If you can make bread, you can make steamed or baked Chinese buns. The dough is not hard to work with, but there are a few tricks which you must know to be successful. One, do not do this on a terribly humid day, because the dough must be very stiff, and if the atmosphere is extremely humid, you will be adding flour to the dough until the end of time to get the texture as stiff as it should be. Also, always flour your hand when working with this dough. Some breads you can use oiled hands to work the dough, but with this recipe, you do not want to add the extra moisture, as the dough is cooked in a moist environment. So, keep your hands floured at all times. When in doubt, add flour!

Makes 10 buns

Ingredients:

2 tsp. active dry yeast
2 ½ tsp. sugar
1 cup and 2tbsp. warm (100-105 degrees F) water
3 ½ cups (1lb.) all purpose flour
½ tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. double acting baking powder
flour as needed for kneading and rolling out dough

Method:

Start this recipe at least 3-4 hours ahead of serving. A double rise, or a slow rise in a chilled environment will yield a more tender crumb to the bread. In that case, start at least 6-8 hours before service, or the night before.

Proof the yeast: Add yeast and sugar to warm water, stirring to dissolve yeast. Put aside in a warm spot for ten minutes, by which time the liquid should be foamy and creamy. This indicates that the yeast is alive and has begun to metabolize the sugar. If there is no foam, either the yeast was too old and died, or the water was either too cold or warm, retarding the growth of the yeast or killing it outright. Start over until you get the foam, or you will have leaden, gummy buns!

Use a stand mixer such as a KitchenAid, to mix the dough: (If you do not have a stand mixer, you can do this by hand.) Put the flour in the bowl of the mixer, and fit the dough hook to the machine. Starting on low speed, pour the water in a steady stream, making certain to scrape every last bit of the yeast foam into the flour. Raise the speed slowly, finally allowing the machine to knead the dough into a ball that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough refuses to come together into a ball, add water by tablespoons until it does so. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Once the dough ball has formed, put machine on highest speed for about a minute to start the kneading of the dough. Stop machine.

Hand knead the dough: Flour a pastry cloth or board lightly, and dump dough into the center of flour. Flour hands and knead for at least three minutes, incorporating flour as needed to create a dry, fairly stiff dough. The dough is ready to rise when it is springy, fingertip firm (that is, it should have the texture of your fingertip, as opposed to a soft dough that is the texture of your earlobe), slightly shiny and when pressed with a fingertip, the indentation should slowly but surely spring back.

Begin the process of letting the dough rise: Pour sesame oil into a large bowl, and coat the bottom of the bowl with a thin film. Slide dough into bowl, turn once to coat with oil, cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and place in a warm place to rise for about 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. Or, place it in a cool place for 3-5 hours, such as the refrigerator, for a slower rise and a finer texture to the finished bread. Make certain that the area for rising is draft free.

While dough rises, cut ten three inch squares of wax paper and grease one side with lard or vegetable shortening. Set aside.

After dough is doubled punch it down into a flat pancake shape. At this point, you may recover it and allow it to rise again. A double rising makes the final crumb of the buns finer and lighter. After it rises a second time, punch it down into a flat pancake shape and proceed as follows:

Add a second leavening agent: Lay the dough onto a floured cloth or board. Sprinkle double-acting baking powder over the surface of the dough. Make certain it is sprinkled on as evenly as possible. With floured hands, knead the dough again, mixing in the baking powder evenly. This little secret I learned from a dim sum chef who worked for years in Hong Kong. Many recipes, he says, do not add the baking powder, but he told me that it adds extra lightness and lift and always made his buns like clouds. He is right–but you absolutely must use double acting baking powder for it to work. Single acting will not do the trick.

Knead again: As you knead, add enough flour to bring the dough back to the fingertip level of firmness. Condensation from the yeast organism’s respiration will make the dough a bit more moist and soft at this point.

Portion the dough evenly: When the dough is back to fingertip firmness, cut dough into two equal portions, and roll each into long ropes. Cut each rope into five pieces, and form each piece into a ball. Cover dough that you are not working immediately with a towel as you go to keep it warm and from drying out.

Begin shaping the rolls: Flatten each ball into a disk. With floured hands, press the disk so it is fatter in the middle and thinner at the edges. Hold your left hand as if you were holding a drinking glass, and set the disk on top as if it were covering the glass. Push the fatter center bit of the dough down into your hand, creating a little cup or well in the dough. Place a bit of filling into the well, and quickly pleat the dough with your right hand, around the filling. If the dough is completely stiff, it should hold quite well. After pleating the dough, twist the top, and pull off the excess bit of topknot. Set the dough down on the waxed paper square, seam side up or down, depending on the finished look you want for your bun. For pork buns, I put the bun down seam side up, so that it makes an “opening flower” kind of effect as it rises and steams. For the mushroom or sweet paste filled buns, I put the dough seam side down to make a smooth top.

Let dough rise one more time: Cover with a dry towel, and allow to commence the final rising, which should take 30-60 minutes. The buns should be springy to the touch and slightly bigger than before.

Steam the buns: Bring water to a rapid boil in a pot big enough for your bamboo steamers to fit over. Put buns in steamer, not touching, if possible. Cover with lid and place steamers over the water, reducing heat to medium high. Steam for 15 minutes, then turn off heat, allowing steam to subside gradually for 5 minutes. Slowly lift the lid. If you lift the lid quickly, or worse, take the steamer off the steam suddenly, your buns may fall and wrinkle, looking quite unhappy when cold air hits them in a rush. They are ready to be served at this point, but can be held on low heat for an hour. Or, they can be cooled, sealed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to two days and reheated by steaming again for fifteen minutes, following the procedure for opening the steamer once more.

Filling for Cantonese Char Siu Bai

The reason the recipe stipulates that you leave the filling uncovered after it is made, is because you want as much excess moisture to evaporate as possible before assembling the buns. Excessive moisture can make the buns gummy on the inside, so you want the filling to be completely cool, and dry with a thick, somewhat sticky sauce that clings to the meat.

Ingredients:

2 tsp. oyster sauce
¾ tsp. dark soy sauce
2 tsp. ketchup
1 ½ tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. Shao Hsing wine
½ tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 tsp. peanut oil.
1 small onion, diced finely
1 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 pound Chinese roast pork, diced small

Method:

Combine first six ingredients and set aside.

Heat peanut oil in a wok and add onion. Stir fry until browned, then add ginger and garlic. Stir fry for one more minute.

Add roast pork and stir fry for about two minutes.

Add sauce ingredients, allow to thicken and reduce somewhat; cook for about one minute.

Remove from heat; place into a bowl and cool, uncovered in the refrigerator for four hours, or cover loosely and leave in the refrigerator overnight before using to fill buns.

25 Comments

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  1. God gods woman, I remember your Char Sui Bai. *eyes roll back in head* They were fantastic!

    Comment by Amy — February 1, 2006 #

  2. Just a note, it’s actually spelled ‘Char Siu Bao’ (if you’re Cantonese), or ‘Cha Shao Bao’ (if you’re Mandarin), the former being more likely than the latter =)

    Comment by Wob — February 1, 2006 #

  3. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that Wob–it just depends on the background of the person who is writing it.

    I have only known these buns as Cha Shao bao because i come from a mandarin speaking home. I would only then write them as such. But my friends from HK wouldn’t.

    Barbara, another fyi, I found this book review of the history of curry that’s coming out soon:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/01/books/01grim.html

    I think I’m going to try to get it and review it.

    Comment by Rose — February 1, 2006 #

  4. Thank you, Wob–I changed my title to the correct spelling. I have seen it spelled the way I spelled it, somewhere, but who knows where. Part of my issue is that when I first started learning transliterations of Chinese was when scholars were changing from Wade-Giles to pinyan, and I had to learn both, which, when combined with my dyslexia, meant that I combined them, along with who knows what all else in my head. So, it is a jumble.

    Thanks for correcting me, though!

    Amy–I had to remember when you had my bao, and then I remembered it was when we showed movies at our place. It all came clear!

    Rose–will you believe it–but I am reading that book right now–and will review it. It is because of that book that we had lamb kofta with pomegranate and aloo gobi for dinner tonight. I kept reading about all of this delicious stuff, so I had to make some!

    I’ll post about it tomorrow….

    Comment by Barbara — February 1, 2006 #

  5. Thank you!! Thank you!!! Believe it or not, I was thinking about making these wonders a few hours ago. My mother and I made them years ago and they were worth the effort. So, you have sealed my fate and I WILL make them.

    Comment by Sher — February 2, 2006 #

  6. Glad to be of service, Sher!

    Comment by Barbara — February 2, 2006 #

  7. My husband and I LOVE the Japanese version of these, which are called “nikuman”. I’ve always wished that I could make them but been afraid to even try…one problem being that I have very limited experience working with yeast. But, with your detailed instructions as my guide, perhaps I can do it? After all, I did attempt to make ramen broth lately and that worked out better than expected!

    Comment by Jamie — February 3, 2006 #

  8. Jamie–they really are not that hard. I wrote the instructions very carefully and thoroughly, and I have taught classes in bao about twelve times or so. You can do it. All of my students have been able to do it, so you can, too.

    Comment by Barbara — February 3, 2006 #

  9. I’ve never had home made bao that tasted like what I get in the Chinese bakery. Their buns always have a slight sweetness to them, plus a kind of different flavor that, to me, tastes as if rice flour were included. Have you ever seen a recipe that did this?

    I grew up in San Francisco, so Cantonese would be the cooking style, if that makes a difference.

    Comment by B'gina — February 13, 2006 #

  10. Let me look at all of my bun dough recipes, B’gina–but from what I can tell, they all only use wheat flour. They all have some amount of sugar in the dough–and I have had some dough that is sweeter than others, definately. I think that is to the taste of the bun maker, or the individual bakery. The rice flour–I don’t know. Part of it may be a texture issue–the dim sum chef I first saw make buns was the one who told me about using both yeast and baking powder, which he added at the last kneading–in order to give a great lift to the buns. But that lightness of texture does seem to give a different taste–when it isn’t really a taste at all, but a difference in volume.

    Comment by Barbara — February 13, 2006 #

  11. That is the most extensive recipe for dough I have ever seen and I’m anxious to try it as I think it will be superior to what I have made previously. Do you have a recipe for a meatball filling rather than the Char Siu as my kids prefer that ? Thank you

    Comment by Shirley — January 14, 2007 #

  12. Hello Shirley–I haven’t made it with a meatball filling myself, but I could probably suggest a recipe. One could likely use a recipe for siu mai filling; in that case, I can post my recipe for that if you like.

    Comment by Barbara — January 18, 2007 #

  13. [...] Bao dough #1 3C Hong Kong flour (or bleached AP, or 2C Bread Flour & 1C cake) 1 Tbsp instant yeast 1 1/2 tsp Salt 3 Tbsp granulated sugar 2 tsp baking powder 3 Tbsp vege Shortening or vege oil (more authentic – Lard) 1C more or less water Procedure 1. Mix flour and dry ingredients well. 2. Add fats and water to make a soft & pliable dough, but not sticky. 3. Knead till smooth and supple. Don’t worry too much about developing the gluten. 4. Proof till doubled. (about 60 – 90 minutes) 5. Punch dough, and roll into a long sausage, dividing it to 30 pieces. 6. Flatten each piece to a disk, place fillings and gather the sides and pinching it at the top to form a dome-like shape 7. Proof till about 1 1/2 times larger. (about 20-30 minutes) 8. Steam buns for 15 – 20 minutes under mid-high heat. Bao dough #2 Starter 2 teasp active dry yeast 1 C lukewarm water 1/2 C sugar (I used only 1/3 C) 1 1/2 C cake flour (I used unbleached organic cake flour) Dough 1/2 teasp salt 1 tablesp rice vinegar 2 C cake flour, plus about 1/4 C for dusting (but I used the mixer and added it in) 1 tablesp baking powder 1/4 teasp baking soda 1 tablesp veg shortening Method: Mix yeast with warm water and sugar. 15 minutes. Mix in the cake flour, cover. 1 hour. Mixture is nice and bubbly. Add salt and vinegar. Stir. Add sifted flour and rising agents. Combine with wooden spoon. Grease the Kenwood dough hook and knead for 5 minutes, adding the additional flour. Actually, you’re asked to knead this on a board. Cover for 1 hour. Meantime, I made the filling. It has more than doubled in volume. Lightly punch down and use for baos. After you’ve formed the baos, let them rest for half an hour before steaming. Bao dough #3 Bao dough #4 (very nice, detailed instructions!) [...]

    Pingback by esuriency.net » Bao experiment research — January 28, 2007 #

  14. Hi! I’d like to try your recipe for the steamed pork buns. I have a question, tho’, and please forgive my ignorance– In the meat filling recipe, it calls for 1/3 pounds Chinese roast pork. I’m not sure exactly what this is refering to. Do I have to roast the pork myself or can I get this ingredient without having to do any preparation? If I need to prepare this, is there a good recipe for making the roast pork?

    Thanks for your help!

    Comment by Anne — January 31, 2007 #

  15. [...] mmmm… now I’m thinking about pork buns. I really want to try this recipe from Tigers and Strawberries…. Tigers & Strawberries Dim Sum Delight: Char Siu Bao [...]

    Pingback by My random idea of the day - Hands on Kitchen — February 27, 2007 #

  16. The history of curry title is interesting, but you neglect to include a title. This means that I must register with NYT to obtain the right to see the book title. What if I want to get the book from another source half-way ’round the world?

    About the rice flour comment: I did see that someone created a rice flour niku-man recipe, but it certainly isn’t an authentic one. I’m a guy and therefore not made privy to Japanese kitchens, but my wife might remember whether they used rice flour or not. I’ll ask.

    Comment by Don Largo — April 2, 2007 #

  17. I know I’m about 2 years late to the party but thank *** that you posted this intelligent recipe for Bao as finding one online seems next to impossible. We’re going to try our hand at making Gai Bao for Chinese New Year – my 5 year old’s favorite dim sum and if you have any other tips I’d love to hear them. But thanks for the great step by step!!!!

    Comment by Joanne — January 26, 2008 #

  18. I am also late in posting, but I just wanted to let you know how helpful this particular page has been. My mom has been making what we refer to as “pau” for years. Recently though, they’ve been falling and wrinkling and she could not figure out why. I told her that I might be able to find a solution online and she doubted me. But I searched for “steamed pork buns”, wrinkle and yours was the first to pop up. My mom was is so excited to try your suggestion of not removing them from the steam and we are both very thankful.

    Comment by Tammy — February 1, 2008 #

  19. I am glad to help! I hope that it works well for you and your mom!

    Comment by Barbara — February 11, 2008 #

  20. Do you or anyone out there know to make the buns to come out “bursting/blooming” like the ones they serve in the dim sum restaurant. I make very delicious tasting char siu bao, but they look smooth, unlike the ones in San Franciso.
    I have not tried this recipe yet, but hoping the resule will bloom!
    Thanks for your effort Barbara

    Comment by LilyB — March 22, 2008 #

  21. thank u so much the buns are a big hit im haveing one now yum

    Comment by sharon marr — May 27, 2008 #

  22. Hello! This recipe looks wonderfully detailed (which is great for a newbie like me!). I just have two questions:

    1. Can I use this same dough recipe for baked baos?

    2. For kneading the dough the first time, is it absolutely necessary to use a KitchenAid machine? Or can I use my hands instead?

    Comment by Ashley Lau — November 9, 2009 #

  23. Yes, Ashley, you can use the dough for baked buns. And, yes, knead with your hands–it just takes a while. Knead until perfectly smooth and it bounces back slowly and fills in the indentation when you poke a finger into the dough.

    Shape as for steamed buns and allow to rise, covered, on a baking sheet until they are doubled in size. Then, brush the tops with a mixture of a beaten egg, sugar and a bit of milk or water–about a teaspoon of milk or water and sugar per egg. Beat these together and brush the tops of the buns with the mixture before putting into a preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for 20 minutes.

    Comment by Barbara — November 9, 2009 #

  24. Yes. I am years late for this question yet your blog takes so long for me to absorb from a culinary and savoring POV. This is a GOOD thing :).

    Can I freeze the dough or buns and as far as the stuffed buns are concerned, at what point? I’d like to take some char sui bai camping with me. Always nice to have my eyes roll back in head whilst imbibing a Shanghai style noodle soup with pork buns under pine trees.

    Comment by Yvette — March 9, 2011 #

  25. [...] I have to shamefully admit that I am not much of a bread baker, and I have not attempted to reproduce any of these buns.  However, if you are so inclined, there are some very detailed recipes on A La Cuisine and Tigers and Strawberries. [...]

    Pingback by Hong Kong Bakeries — April 23, 2011 #

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