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story.lead_photo.caption Steamed buns with a ginger-garlic-lemongrass seasoned mixture of ground beef and green onions, carrots, cilantro and chile sauce. Photo by Kelly Brant

It was love at first bite — a soft, fluffy yeast bun filled with a sweet-savory-spicy mixture of meat and crisp, fresh vegetables.

It was Chinese food like I'd never experienced before.

I was eating a steamed bun, more commonly known in the U.S. as a bao bun.

Sometimes the buns are filled before cooking and sometimes they are steamed, split and then filled.

Traditionally the buns, also known as Gua bao, are filled with pork, but just about any filling will work. The popular, but now-defunct Southern Gourmasian offered the buns with Balinese chicken (my favorite) or roasted pork.

Three Fold, another popular downtown Little Rock restaurant, serves their "mo" with pickled vegetables, fresh greens, cilantro, pepper sauce and a choice of chicken, pork or tofu.

I recently made them at home and went a different route and filled my buns with a ginger-garlic-lemongrass seasoned mixture of ground beef and green onions, carrots, cilantro and chile sauce.

The buns aren't complicated to make but do require quite a bit of hands-on time for kneading and shaping, and the total process takes about 4 hours, so these are definitely not a weeknight dinner. However, the buns freeze well, so you could keep a stash in the freezer for when the craving strikes.

A bamboo steamer is helpful, but not absolutely necessary. A metal steaming basket lined with parchment paper will do just as well. A sturdy wire rack, also lined with parchment, would also work. Just be sure the simmering water does not touch the food.

Steamed Buns

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar, divided use

1 tablespoon warm water

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup milk

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for brushing

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon baking powder

In a small bowl, stir together the yeast, a pinch of sugar and the warm water; let proof for 5 minutes. If mixture does not foam and bubble, discard and begin again with fresh yeast.

In a medium bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, remaining sugar and salt. Mix well. Stir in the yeast mixture, ¾ cup water, the milk, vegetable oil and rice wine vinegar. Mix until a dough forms. If mixing by hand, turn dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, 10 to 15 minutes. If using a stand mixture, swap the paddle attachment for the dough hook and knead on low speed for 10 to 15 minutes.

Lightly oil a clean bowl. Transfer dough to the oiled bowl. Cover and let rise for 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Turn dough out onto a clean work surface and punch down. Using your hands, flatten dough into a large rectangle. Sprinkle evenly with baking powder. Knead for 5 minutes.

Shape dough into a long log about 1 ¼-inches thick. Cut log into 18 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball between your palms. Arrange balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet and let rest for about 3 minutes.

Cut 4 to 6 rounds of parchment paper to fit your steamer basket(s). Place parchment rounds on a cookie sheet or other flat surface.

Working with one ball at a time, use a rolling pin to roll each ball into an oval no thicker than ¼-inch. Lightly brush oval with vegetable oil. Rub a chopstick (or clean pencil) with vegetable oil. Lay the chopstick horizontally across the center of the oval and fold the dough over the chopstick. Slowly and gently remove chopstick. Carefully transfer the shaped bun to a parchment round. Repeat with remaining dough. You should be able to fit about 4 buns on each round of parchment paper. Cover buns with a damp cloth and let rise for 1 ½ hours.

Heat a wok, wide skillet or shallow pot large enough to hold the steamer basket snugly with enough water to fill by about 1 inch and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a steady simmer. Working in batches, carefully transfer the dough on the parchment round to the steamer baskets. Cover and steam 8 minutes or until buns are puffy. Remove buns and parchment paper from the steamer and cook the remaining buns.

Gently pry buns open and fill as desired. (Leftover buns can be frozen between sheets or parchment paper. To re-heat, steam frozen buns for 5 to 10 minutes or until hot.)

Makes about 18 buns.

Recipe adapted from BBC Good Food

Food on 08/07/2019

Print Headline: Chinese steamed buns open for filling

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