23 October 2007
To Chinatown and Back
Is it possible to be homesick for a place that isn’t home? When I was in college I went off to the Middle East for the first time, to study in Beirut for the summer. I came back to New York, to my usual routine, terribly nostalgic for the world I had discovered. Where were the sidewalks pockmarked by rubble and bomb holes, where were the collapsing Ottoman mansions, the crusader castles, the artichoke fields, the night clubs built into converted bunkers? I missed the markets teeming with gorgeous produce, fish flapping in the market in Tripoli, the array of sweet biscuits in Saida, the call to prayer. Back in the U.S. I wanted desperately to feel like I was somewhere else, in a city that prides itself on anonymity, I wanted to feel like an outsider.
I found what I was looking for on the streets of New York’s Chinatown: sure the culture was different, but there were the bustling street vendors, the piles of unusual vegetables. Everything was written in a different alphabet, people bargained fiercely in a foreign language, and I was the only American around- I felt right at home. A stroll through Chinatown became part of my regular Sunday routine, I even started noticing similarities between the two cuisines, the mooncakes that resembled Middle Eastern date cakes (mamoul). Often, I stopped for a puffy roast pork bun, char siu bao, or did my grocery shopping, stocking up on Chinese buns for the freezer or uber-cheap fresh bok choy and seafood.
Fast forward several years, I was living and working in Damascus, and as much as I love Middle Eastern food, I was craving something different. I missed all the different ethnic eateries New York has to offer. I missed those puffy Chinese-style buns, and with no Dynasty supermarket nearby, I decided to try and make my own. With little access to pork in a Muslim country, I made a simple spinach filling, and I was happy to find that since the buns are steamed I didn’t have to fiddle with my troublesome (fear-of-death inducing) oven.
Since that first time I’ve made many batches of Chinese-style buns, and though my bun-shaping skills have improved, they never look like the gorgeous ones of Chinatown (maybe if I got a proper bamboo steamer). It doesn’t matter, because we love the supremely light texture of the bread that comes from their long rise, they’re the perfect partner to soup or something saucy to dip them in. I actually prefer the spinach filling, but you can use any mixed vegtables or shredded meat, I once saw a version that used whole-wheat flour and mushroom-cashew filling. Though these are a bit of a time investment to make, they freeze beautifully, I often keep a bunch in the freezer for those nights when you get home late and want something quick. I had to go half-way around the world more than once to discover these homemade buns, hopefully you’ll discover their joys right at home.
Chinese-Style Spinach Buns
for the dough:
1 cup warm water
1 package dry yeast
3 tbl sugar
3 cups cake flour, plus more for kneading
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
for the filling:
12 oz fresh spinach (can substitute frozen)
2 tbl vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
red pepper, to taste
3 tbl soy sauce
1. Make filling: Wash the spinach and leave some of the water clinging to it. Roughly chop the spinach. Heat the oil in a saute pan and saute the garlic until beginning to soften, about a minute. Add the spinach and toss over moderate heat (you may have to add the spinach in batches to get it all to fit in the pan). Toss the spinach until wilted and dark green, but not completely collapsed, several minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the soy sauce and season with red pepper. Set aside.
2.Make dough: Place the warm water in a large bowl, add the sugar and yeast and set aside until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the 3 cups of flour and knead in the bowl until the flour is incorporated (if it is very sticky you can add 1/4 cup more flour). Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes, until elastic and smooth but still soft. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning the dough to coat, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.
3. Punch down the dough and flatten it into a disk. Sprinkle the baking powder over the dough, then fold the dough over and knead to incorporate the baking powder. Let rest covered 30 minutes (meanwhile, cut 12 squares of parchment paper).
4. Form buns: Form the dough into a log and pinch off 12 equal pieces. Roll the dough pieces into a circle, using the rolling pin to make the edges of the circle thinner than the middle. Fill the dough with a spoonful of spinach. Gather up the edges of the dough, pleating them as you gather, then form a circle with your thumb and forefinger and squeeze the pleats closed. Place on a parchment square. Repeat to form remaining buns. Let the buns rest, covered, for 20 minutes, until puffed. Meanwhile, prepare a vegetable steamer.
5. Place the buns (on their parchment squares) in a steamer. Cover and steam 10-15 minutes, until puffed and heated through. Serve immediately.