A friend recently asked me if I knew how to make kaya, a coconut custard spread that’s our local equivalent of jam. Amused, I replied ‘why would you want to make kaya when you can buy it everywhere?’ He then revealed that he was asking on behalf of his girlfriend who is currently studying in the UK. Truth is, I’ve made kaya and a whole lot of foods that I used to take for granted in Singapore. While living in Canada, I quickly discovered that the only way to satisfy my bak kwa (BBQ pork jerky), popiah (vegetable spring roll), yu sheng (raw fish salad), and kueh lapis (thousand-layered cake) craving is to make it myself. And the funny thing is, once I’ve learnt how to make something, I rarely want to buy it even when it’s readily accessible. The same applies for these Chinese steamed buns：馒头 man tou.
The etymology of its Chinese name contains an interesting story dating back to the Three Kingdoms period. As the story goes, while strategist Zhuge Liang led the Shu army in its march home after defeating barbarian chieftain Meng Huo, they came across a swift and deadly River Lu, whose river spirits would only be appeased by the sacrifice of 49 human heads. Refusing to shed more innocent blood after the war, Zhuge Liang ordered that flour balls shaped to resemble human heads be made and thrown into the river. After crossing the river successfully, he named the buns 蛮头 man tou (barbarian heads), which was later changed to a slightly more appetising 馒头 man tou, what we know as steamed buns today.
But don’t let that stop you. Homemade steamed buns are always freshly made, do not contain chemicals or preservatives, and are deliciously easy to make. They can be eaten as is, or deep fried till golden brown. Can’t finish them? Freeze leftovers and pop them in the steamer again before eating. This recipe that I adapted from blogger Almost Bourdain is a winner, and I shaped them into flat sandwich buns (荷包) so they would be perfect vessels for the pork belly dish my husband was braising. If you want to shape them like the traditional buns, there are excellent instructions here.
Yields: 10 large flat buns
500g Hong Kong flour (or low-gluten flour)
25g caster sugar
5g instant yeast
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp vegetable oil
1. Scale out all the ingredients into a mixing bowl.
2. Using mixer with dough hook or by hands, knead on low speed for 10 minutes.
3. Transfer to a floured counter top and shape into a ball. Let it rest for 10 minutes.
4. Divide dough into 10 equal portions of 80g each. Shape each portion into a round ball
5. On lightly floured counter, position rolling pin at the center of the dough ball and roll out away from you. And then return to center and roll toward you. You should have an elongated oval piece of dough.
6. Fold one end over to meet the other end. Place on squares of parchment paper.