My Citizens! A news story today about the ostensible Chinese spy balloon has caused a diplomatic furor! I am frequently inspired to post recipes related to current events and having an errant Chinese lighter-than-air balloon inspired Me to share a recipe for the delicately light Chinese roast pork-stuffed bun cha siu bao!
Cha siu bao is a Cantonese barbecue-pork-filled baozi (bun). The buns are filled with barbecue-flavored cha siu pork and are typically served as a type of dim sum during yum cha (little dishes that tug at the heart as you drink tea) and are sometimes sold in Chinese bakeries. Cha siu refers to the pork filling; the word bao means “bun”.
There are two major kinds of cha siu bao: the traditional steamed version is called 蒸叉燒包 (pinyin: zhēng chāshāo bāo) or simply 叉燒包 (chāshāo bāo; chāsīu bāau), while the baked variety is called 叉燒餐包 (chāshāo cān bāo). Steamed cha siu bao has a white exterior, while the baked variety is browned and glazed.
Although visually similar to other types of steamed baozi, the dough of steamed cha siu bao is unique since it makes use of both yeast and baking powder as leavening. This unique mix of leavening gives the dough of cha siu bao the texture of a slightly dense, but fine soft bread.
Encased in the center of the bun is tender, sweet, slow-roasted pork tenderloin. This cha siu is diced, and then mixed into a syrupy mixture of oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, roasted sesame seed oil, rice vinegar, shaoxing wine or dry sherry, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch.
Regarding bao, there is an historical (and rather violent!) story as to its origins that goes like this:
Bao are thought to have originated in China’s Three Kingdoms period, around the third century (although some historians believe they were around for much longer, with references to a similar-sounding delicacy dating back to 400 BC).
They were supposedly popularized by Zhuge Liang, a legendary military strategist who was known for his tactical prowess. The legendary story goes that when returning home with his army after defeating a king, they came across a river which was impossible to wade through.
A local barbarian told him that in the past locals would sacrifice men and throw their heads into the river as an offering to its deity. Preferring not to put his men through any more suffering, Zhuge Liang decided to form steamed wheat buns into the shape of human heads, stuff them with meat and throw them into the river instead.
The deity obviously found these much more delicious than its usual diet of severed heads, parted the waters and allowed the army to continue the journey. The resulting dish was called mantou (which roughly translates to ‘barbarian’s head’).
By the tenth century, mantou referred to steamed bread rolls without a filling, while bao (or baozi, to use their full name) became a dish in their own right, stuffed with various other foods. Mantou, the ancient name for steamed buns or baozi, were a staple of the diet in Northern China and also known as the “working man’s lunch”.
An alternate (and probably correct) history of cha siu bao states that during a military campaign to the swampy regions of South China, an army became gravely ill and would not eat. Losing strength quickly, their general suggested they fill the mantou of their home region with savory meats and sweet fillings to tempt the men to eat.
This worked and the army regained their strength to fight a successful campaign. It is said the military then brought this new dish of filled buns back to their homeland where it became popular with civilians as well.
Now – I will be the first to admit that it is FAR easier to go to your local dim sum restaurant or Chinese bakery to pick up a cha siu bao that is at least adequate. ADEQUATE, however, is a word that rattles the tectonic plates of gastronomic excellence that are the foundations of My very soul into a catastrophic quake of pure dismay.
I want THE BEST, with ZERO compromise – and that is EXACTLY what the Citizens of TFD Nation will always receive from Me! As such, this recipe is an avowed pain to make and takes 2 days – however, the ingredients aren’t hard to procure, the work is pretty easy and the end result is sublime beyond measure!
First off – the bread wrapping (the bao) – and because baking is an exceedingly precise discipline, I have (as always) opted for metric instead of imperial measurements here,
Bao dough is exceedingly tender and soft – and the Chinese like to have a “cracked” top to each cha siu bao. The only proper way to achieve this is a holy Trinity of ingredients: very low gluten flour (aka cake flour), and two very special ingredients that you would NEVER expect to find in your food: ammonia and lye!!!
To be VERY VERY CLEAR: do NOT use ammonia and lye from your cleaning supplies in your food! This is food-grade ammonium carbonate and food-grade lye water – both are safe to use in baking and both are quite ancient tools for leavening without baking powder (which is also used in the recipe!).
Ammonium carbonate was once also commonly used in Nordic baking, such as this Icelanidic heirloom air cookie recipe (remember the “light-as-air” theme for this post? 😉 ) In Nordic baking, it is called “hartshorn” and is easily purchased from King Arthur Baking Supplies here.
Baking with Hartshorn WILL cause an ammonia smell – DON’T PANIC, it dissipates rapidly and your food will not taste of ammonia! Lye water is used in pretzel making and is found here – this can be caustic, so please wear gloves when pouring it out – once in the dough, it is fine to knead and won’t burn you in any way.
You’ll need the following other ingredients, using My preferred brands of course! Dark soy sauce (not the same as the usual, don’t substitute), Thai oyster sauce, 5 spice, Mei Kuei Lu Chiew (basically vodka infused with rose petals), hoisin sauce, bleached cake flour, Japanese sesame oil, tapioca starch, and wheat starch.
There are also two optional ingredients I’ve added to the recipe that I find enhance the umami and overall flavor – and yes, they’re a bit outré. Standard ketchup is an important ingredient in the cha siu sauce inside the bun, but I prefer to use not just Heinz, but a unique curry-flavored ketchup – buy it here (it’s amazing!).
The second optional ingredient definitely adds umami – the bad news is that it’s almost impossible to find outside of well-stocked Chinese grocery stores or making it yourself – it’s known as hong zao (red sediment), made from glutinous rice and a red starter mold. The good news – red miso is an excellent alternative!
The use of white vinegar in the dough and the steaming water is an old Chinese chef trick for keeping the buns from turning yellowish and encouraging the “cracked top” so prized by cha siu bao connoisseurs. As to the all-important cha siu – just buy that at a local Chinese deli or restaurant – it’s way easier than making it!
Citizens, this recipe is truly the ne plus ultra of cha siu bao – there is no recipe better than My own, and I will happily stand by that proclamation! Once you’ve tried My superlatively authentic version of cha siu bao – you’ll NEVER go back to the mediocre versions ever again!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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