Cooking with Friends: Char Siu Bao

Eating, for me, is a social event, a way to connect with friends and family while enjoying delicious food. Cooking is just as social. I love having folks in and around the kitchen when I'm cooking and I really enjoy when someone joins me in the kitchen to cook.

The other nice thing about cooking with friends is learning new things - like how to make Chinese Steamed Pork Buns or Char Siu Bao.


Years ago my friend Nancy told me about a dim sum course she was taking and when she came for a visit she showed me how to make bao. It's become a tradition that whenever she visits, we make a batch or two together.

When you buy char siu bao at the dim sum shops they are often mostly bread with a little pocket of filling - economical for the shops, not so great for you. When they're homemade you can switch the ratio but if you overfill the bao you run the risk that they'll split open when steaming.

The recipe we follow is from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. For the most part we follow her recipe, making minor changes to the amount of liquid used for the dough and using a stand mixer rather than making the dough by hand. But to see how it should be done, watch this video where she takes you step-by-step through the process:


Nancy and I split duties. While she focuses on the dough, I prep the ingredients and cook the filling. She will also portion and roll out the dough (rather than forming it in her hand) and I'll fill and form the bao.



The bao are placed on little squares of wax paper (to prevent sticking) and arranged in a bamboo steamer with enough space to allow them to expand while cooking.


The bamboo steamer is placed in a wok and in about 20 minutes we have a fresh batch of char siu bao to enjoy.



While we work in the kitchen we're chatting and enjoying each others' company. And once the bao are ready we, along with our other friends, enjoy the fruits of our labor. When we're really ambitious we'll also make siu mai, steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, and have our own little dim sum feast.

I have a lot of great memories with Nancy. Not surprisingly a lot of them revolve around food. And while we've made a lot of things together, my enduring memories are making char siu bao with a very dear friend.


Char Siu Bao

Modified slightly from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's recipe in The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History and Memories from America's Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1½ teaspoon dark soy sauce*
2 teaspoons ketchup
2¼ teaspoons sugar
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper
2¼ teaspoons tapioca flour or cornstarch
5 tablespoons chicken stock

For the filling:

1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ cup diced onion in ¼-inch pieces
¾ cup char siu (Chinese barbecued pork), cut thinly into ½-inch square pieces
1½ teaspoons shao hsing rice wine (Chinese white rice wine) or gin
½ teaspoon sesame oil

For the dough:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour
3½ teaspoons baking powder
½ cup sugar
7 tablespoons milk, room temperature
2 tablespoons water
2½ tablespoons peanut oil or lard (melted)

To make the sauce: In a small bowl, combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.

To make the filling: Heat a wok over high heat for 40 seconds, add the peanut oil and coat the wok with it using a spatula. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the onion. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes until the onion turns light brown. Raise the heat, add the pork and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Add the wine and mix well. Stir the sauce the pour into the wok, stir and mix, cooking for 1 to 1½ minutes until the sauce thickens and turns brown. Add the sesame oil and mix well. Turn off the heat and transfer the filling mixture to a shallow dish. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate uncovered for 4 hours or covered overnight.

To make the dough: Mix the flour, baking powder, and sugar together on a work surface. Make a well in the center, add the milk gradually, and with your fingers combine with the flour mixture. When the milk is absorbed, add the water and work the dough with your fingers. Add the lard or peanut oil and continue to work the dough with your fingers. Using a dough scraper, gather the dough in one hand and knead for 12-15 minutes. If the dough is dry, add 1 teaspoon water at a time and continue to knead until the dough is elastic. If the dough is wet, sprinkle a bit of flour on the work surface and on your hands and continue working it. When the dough is elastic, cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest for 1 hour. (Note: we use a stand mixer to make and knead the dough.)

To make the bao: Roll the dough into a cylinder 16 inches long. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Work with 1 piece at a time, cover those not being used with a damp cloth. Press a ball of dough down lightly, then, with your fingers, press into a well-like shape. Place 1½ tablespoons filling into the well, close, and pleat the dough with your fingers until the filling is completely enclosed. Repeat for all 16 pieces of dough. Place the buns on 2½-inch squares of wax paper and place in a bamboo steamer, allowing room for the buns to expand during cooking.

Heat water in a wok to steam the bao adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to the water (to make the buns a bright white). Place the bamboo steamer in the wok and steam the bao for 15-20 minutes. If using two steamer trays, switch the trays halfway through cooking. Turn off the heat, remove the buns, and serve.
*Dark soy sauce is sweeter than regular soy sauce because it contains molasses. If you can't find it you can use regular soy sauce.


This post is dedicated to my friend Nancy who makes me laugh and challenges me to try new things and recipes. May we be cooking together long into our dotage :)

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