(Disclaimer: Shengjian Bao is unabashedly Chinese - something I’m not.)
I’m a bad Asian.
Well I already knew that, but mostly because one should probably post a Lunar New Year related recipe before the event happens right? Or actually make the visit home for arguably the most important holiday of the year in my family. But instead of queueing behind a long line of extended family members for a lucky red envelope and gorging myself into a food coma, I’m here in a town with a 3.8% Asian American population writing about pork buns.
Lunar new year has always been a big deal: despite all of the high standards my mother held us to, she’d always say, “I don’t care what you do as long as you’re here for Tết.” In an increasingly white washed generation of Vietnamese Americans - most who no longer speak the native tongue- the holiday is one of the last strong remnants of our background. It’s the celebration we’re not allowed to compromise on. In the same way Ralphie wakes up on Christmas morning, my mom looks forward to the New Year in both trepidation and excitement. She spends the entire month before intricately carving daffodil bulbs with an exacto knife until 1AM under fluorescent kitchen light, timing it so they would be at full bloom the day we dress up in black suits and áo dài. Per tradition, the house has to be fastidiously clean - the floor waxer that lives in the closet under the stairs, much like an adolescent Harry Potter - is allowed to come out for its annual use. There’s always a perpetual amount of traditional candies and snacks on the living room table where no one steps foot anyway, and the weekend of Tết always involved a party composed of stuffing dollar bills into countless red envelopes with my siblings.
Of course, that was when we were all still living at home, and not pursuing adult endeavours, like being a hardware engineer, an optometrist, or broke foodwriter. (One of those jobs is not like the others.) Part of me wants to be back at home to take part in traditions once more, like my mom tricking me into walking inside the house first on New Year’s Day, allegedly imparting me with horrible luck for the rest of the year. But I’ve come to learn- despite my mom’s stubborn beliefs- that being an adult means there are things you do have to compromise on, even if it includes missing her favorite family and cultural holiday to work Sunday dinner service on the Central Coast.
So I missed out on the festivities this year - the singing, the lucky red envelopes, shrieking Vietnamese-accented laughter, the prayer (okay I don’t miss that), and the kitchen counters laden with foil trays of food. Xôi gấc (Vietnamese red sticky rice), platters of cold cuts and chả lụa, bánh chưng, and smoky whole roasted suckling pigs with crackly skin just to name a few- hallmarks of Vietnamese food and culture that incite envy from other people.
So why did I write a brief essay reminiscing about Vietnam to give you a recipe for unabashedly Chinese pork buns? As I said, I’m a bad Asian - one who really enjoys pan fried, juicy pork filled dumplings, but also one who wouldn’t even dare try to duplicate an experience like Tết this anywhere else but at home.
Fried steamed pork buns (shengjian bao)
recipe adapted from food52/two red bowls
I affectionately use pork dumplings as a way to clear out the remnants of far east ingredients from my pantry and from my fridge. Feel free to use whatever aromatics and condiments you have handy - chances are it’ll be good. Be sure to cook a small sample of filling to taste.
for the dough
1.5 packs of active dry yeast (3.5 teaspoons)
1.5 cups milk
1.5 tablespoons neutral oil (vegetable or canola)
1/4 cup sugar
4.5 cups bread flour
for the filling
1 pound fatty ground pork
fish sauce, to taste
soy sauce, to taste
hoisin sauce, to taste
sesame oil, to taste
rice vinegar, to taste
2 tablespoons cornstarch
salt, to taste
3 parts soy sauce
1 part hoisin sauce
drizzle of sesame oil
splodge of chili paste
minced ginger and scallions
splash of vinegar
mis en place: dough
Mix together the milk, oil, and sugar in a microwave proof bowl. Heat for 45 seconds to 1 minute in the microwave until pleasantly warm, but not hot. Sprinkle over the yeast, and let stand for 5-8 minutes until foamy.
Measure the flour and salt in a very large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the yeast mixture and stir together until you end up with a shaggy clump of dough. Knead until it becomes smooth, approximately 7-10 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let sit for 1-2 hours until doubled in size.
mis en place: pork filling
If you’re using larger aromatics like onion or chopped vegetables, it’s not a bad idea to sweat them in some oil until they soften. Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl- mix until the meat becomes somewhat sticky and tacky.
mis en place: soy dip
Combine all of the ingredients... Did I really need to write that down?
mis en place: shaping and steaming the dumplings
Punch down the risen dough. Pinch off ping pong sized balls of dough, and roll each into a flat circle, about 3 inches in diameter. If possible, roll the edges thinner than the center. Place about a tablespoon of pork in the middle, and fold the dough up around the filling. Feel free to look up tutorials on how to fold dumplings, but there’s only so much aesthetics can do for food - just make sure they’re sealed.
Prepare your steamer with simmering water - I used a plate perched on top of a ramekin in a large stockpot. Grease your steamer surface with a bit of oil. Place folded buns 2-3 inches apart on the tray, and steam for 10 minutes. Repeat as necessary until all the buns are steamed.
Pour a good amount of neutral oil in a saute pan on medium heat. Place the buns in a single layer in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Serve with your version of soy dipping sauce.