Eight years ago, on a bitterly cold winter evening in Minnesota, I found myself craving mom's baozi. So I decided to make them myself.
Baozi (Chinese: 包子), or simply bao, is a type of yeast-leavened filled bun found in various Chinese cuisines. It comes in many variations in fillings from meat to vegetarian and is typically steamed. Baozi is a variation of mantou from Northern China.
Growing up with mom's home-made bao, making them seemed like second-nature to me. I had clear memories of each step of the process, but it was my first attempt at making them from scratch all by myself.
From pouring out the first batch of flour, adding water and yeast, kneading the dough, waiting for the dough to rise, preparing the filling, rolling out the wrapper, wrapping the fillings, putting it into a steamer and finally lifting the lid of the steamer to see the fat fluffy bao, it took me half a day!
The aroma of the yeasty flour and the sesame oil instantly transported me back to my childhood memories...
When I was still a toddler, I would always get a piece of the flour to play with while mom made baos. This was her way of keeping me occupied so she could focus on making dinner. I would roll the dough into a "snake", and rub it with my palms. When small pieces would fall off from the bottom, I would burst into laughter, exclaiming "it's pooping, it's pooping!".
As I grew older, the baos I made finally made it to the steamer and became edible. My favorite was making the little hedgehog-shaped buns. I would shape the dough into a round ball and used scissors to make several cuts on the top, creating the spikes of the hedgehog.
The rule was simple: I had to eat what I made. Being a picky eater with small appetite, this was probably my mom's way to encourage me to eat more.
I eagerly waited as the bun rose slowly in the steamer. When mom opened the lid of the steamer, I immediately spotted my hedgehog bun, now one size larger, puffy, and white with a glaze. The dough bounced back after a push of my finger, a sign that it was ready!
As I grew older, I was promoted to Sous Chef!
Instead of starting with the first step of the recipe, my mon took a more practical approach to teach a little kid like me. We started with the most enjoyable part (also the last step): Wrapping the bun filling.
First, I learned to put the filling inside the round wrapper and make folds all around it until the wrapper engulfed the filling, creating a round-shaped well (the size of the tip of your thumb) as I seal the bun. The key here was to determine the right amount of filling you put in. There had to be enough meat to make the bun flavorful, but not so much that it would leak out of its wrapper. Newbies like me tend to put too much filling, so the advice was to rather underfill than overfill.
Once I mastered filling the buns, mom then taught me how to roll out the wrapper.
After kneading the dough into a 2-inch diameter long rod, she cut the rod into inch long cylinders. Then she would flatten the cylinders with her palm to create round disks. It was finally my turn.
Mom taught me to first use the rolling pin to gently roll out the dough into a flatter round shape. I would hold the edge of the dough disk with my left hand and roll out the side of the dough that was facing me first. Then I would rotate the dough clockwise, and roll out the edge of the dough towards me again, repeating the process. The secret is to leave the middle of the dough untouched and only roll out the edges. This way, the middle of the bun wrapper would be thicker than its side, and this will prevent the filling from breaking through the wrapper as filling sinks down towards the center!
Next step was making the bun filling.
Just like my mom, my favorite type of filling was the vegetarian one that consisted of fried eggs, vermicelli noodles and chives. Compared to making a minced-meat filling, this vegetarian one involved more steps: boiling and stir-frying the vermicelli and making a thin egg pancake. Then it was time to chop them all into tiny pieces by hand and spice them up with salt, soy sauce, sesame oil and the five-spices powder.
As I mastered each step of the process, I was ready for any on-call duty!
There were days when I would come home from school and find my mom about to make the wrappers, so I would help roll them out. Other times, I would chop up the filling and handle the final steps of wrapping it up.
Making buns is a team effort. Since kneading the dough required a lot of arm strength, I rarely participated in that step. No wonder every adult in our family has muscular arms!
I gradually learned about each step of making baos, but never had the chance to do the whole procedure by myself until I left Hungary.
Yesterday, I found myself craving mom's bao again.
After 4 hours of intense labor, I devoured 5 baos within minutes even though they were not nearly as good as mom's!
Just kneading the flour alone caused me to break into a sweat - what a great workout for the arms!
My fingers, especially mt lower thumb muscle still hurts from rolling out the wrappers yesterday.
Now I understand mom wasn't just "putting food on the table".
Living 5,000 miles away from her mother country, Mom must have missed grandma's bao.
Just like grandma, mom rarely expresses her love for us verbally, it was all inside the bao.
As I swallow the last bite, I wonder what my grandma's mom's bao tasted like...
What was her favorite flavor?
💡 Always use all-purpose flour - if you only have bread flour and cake flour, mixing them with 1:1 ratio will yield you all-purpose flour!
💡 If you make too much filling but not enough flour, make larger baos, as it uses up more of the filling relative to the flour. If you still have some meat filling left, you can use it to make meatballs (just add an egg and some flour) in meatball soup or meat pie (just make the shell with flour+water, no need for raised flour)!
💡 If you make too much flour but not enough filling (i.e. you have extra flour left), you can simply make "mantou" (steamed buns) and steam them the same way as the stuffed buns!
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