Thursday, February 12, 2009

Char Shu Bao

Andrew here again. Steamed Char Shu Bao (that’s the mandarin pronounciation. Cantonese is Ta Siu Bao- I add this not to be a dick, but because it can be handy, as you’ll see), or steamed barbeque pork buns.

I should start off by saying that pretty much every technique I’m about to describe is wholly unfamiliar to me. Many of them are quite common, but I’ve never done them- such as making dough, kneading it, etc. So your results may well be different from my own. Secondly, the dough used for steamed Ta Siu Bao is different from that used in baked bao. So don’t try using this for that. The sough here is relatively unique for food in that it requires the use of active yeast throughout the preparation. The result is an incredibly light, spongy dough, almost like something from a pastry. Or it ought to be, anyway.

Important: this is a LONG recipe. By which I mean it takes a LONG time- as in, 4 hours, mostly waiting. So don’t do this spur-of-the-moment unless you have the time to kill. I was lucky in that I had an unexpected day off. You may not be so lucky. This makes roughly 22-24 bao.

That said, this recipe is an adaption of the recipie found in Madame Wong’s Long-Life Chinese Cookbook, a book from the 70’s that you can get pretty cheaply, but has some good stuff in it, and is apparently illustrated. Why do I say adaption, your ask hesitantly. Because I didn’t have all the ingredients, added a few, found out I didn’t have all the right equipment partly-through. So taking all of that into consideration, I’m still pretty happy.

First thing’s first. Ingredients and equipment. I’m going to separate this recipe into two parts; the dough and the filling.


1. 1 package of dried yeast, or 1 cake fresh yeast.

2. 1 cup lukewarm water

3. 4 ½ cups flour

4. ¼ cup white sugar

5. 2 tablespoons wegetable oil.

6. ½ cup boiling water

7. A little butter

Equipment: Measuring cups, measureing spoons, a flat area to work on, a couple of large mixing bowls, a rolling pin. A whisk. Some paper towels or kitchen towels.


1. Place the yeast in the bottom of one of the mixing bowls. Add the lukewarm water. Whisk this until it is fully dissolved.

2. Add 1 cup flour. Whisk until homogenous.

3. Cover top of bowl with cloth and wait 1 hour.

4. Seperately, take a larger mixing bowl and use the butter to butter the whole inside of the bowl.

5. Add the sugar and vegetable oil to the boiling water and stire until dissolved.

Now cool until lukewarm. I was running out of time for the hour and got impatient, so after trying to cool the measuring cup with cold water on the outside, I realized what a dope I was being, since glass is pretty insulating. I transferred the hot water solution to a metal measuring cup and put it into a bowl of cold water which I had the faucet continue running cold water into. Two mintues later the water was lukewarm-perfect.

6. Add the sugar-oil-water mixture to the yeast stuff.

7. Add 3 ½ cups flour. Stir a little bit, until it gets a bit gooey.

8. Scoop up all the dough-like stuff from the bowl and start to knead it on a lightly floured surface. You’ll only need to do so for a couple of minutes until you’ll notice that it is pretty uniform, and is no longer sticking to everything it otuches and leaving clumps behind. This means it is ready.

9. Place this lump into the bottom of the greased bowl.

10. Take a towel and wet it and squeeze it until it is only a little damp. This is INCREDIBLY important as you do NOT want the dough to rise and hit a dry towel. Place the towel over the bowl. Wait 2 hours.

Now we head to the filling part.

Ideally, you should already have barbeque pork, but I did not. In fact, I didn’t have any pork. I had to run out while the dough was rising to buy some. As I’m in china town, I went to a nearby butcher’s shop. I was the only white person in there and felt a little silly. After looking around for a while,k I finally talked to one of the butchers.

“Hello, how many?”

“None, I’m looking for barbeque pork”

“Oh” (he starts to walk to the right)

“Cha shu”

“Oh! Cha shu! Ok!” (he starts to walk left)

Cha Shu was a little risk that they were mandarin speakers, but most of the people in Chinatown these days are mandarin speakers- all the Cantonese went to Flushing. Cha Shu is barbeque pork. I had been hoping that they had already barbequed pork I could buy, but as I saw, they did not. Instead what he grabbed was a piece of what I THINK was labeled pork butt. This was some pretty dark pork, that almost looked like beef, or just like dark meat on a turkey or something. This was some manly looking pork. But he knew exactly what I meant, so he knew what cut to recommend. He pulled out a slab and held it up grinning.

“Good, huh?”


“How much you want?”

“Uh…2 pounds”

(astonished)”2 pounds? Okay!”

He proceeded to cut me what I asked for. Total price: $4.17. This turned out to be very good quality. It was also extremely low fat content. That is, there was some fat around the sides, but virtually fat-free within the meat part itself. Very nice. Remember, when it doubt, ask your butcher- he probably knkows better than you.

I can’t help but wonder what I would have gotten if I hadn’t asked him for the char shu rather than just the barbeque pork.

Anyway, this was barbequing pork, but I don’t have a barbeque. So I did my best. I brought it home with some fun adventures and prepared to cook the filling. You’ll need the folliwng:

1. 2 tablespoons lite soy sauce (yes, I said lite- this is supposed to be somewhat sweet, not salty)

2. 2 tablespoons oyster sauce

3. 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

4. 2 cloves garlic, chopped very fine

5. About as much scallions, also chopped fine.

6. 2 tablespoons olive oil

7. 1 tablespoon flour dissolved in 2 tablespoons water.

8. 1 tablespoon brown sugar.

9. A frying pan

10. A steamer

11. A pot of boiling water

12. Aluminum foil

13. 1 pound pork butt.

For gods sake, before you start this recipe, make sure you have a steamer. I didn’t until after I had gotten home (of course) from buying the pork. Why didn’t I know? Because I had no idea I was in the only Chinese apartment in all of Chinatown which DOESN’T have a steamer. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go out and buy yourself a nice one.


1. Take your 1 pound of pork and chop it up. You want it to be in small cubes around a cubic centimeter. Yes, this is a pain in the ass, but you won’t be putting much into each bun and it’s meat to be fairly delicate. But you wouldn’t be doing this recipe if you weren’t willing to endure some pain in the ass, right? Try to make the cubes as fat free as possible- I’ve eaten cheap cha shu bao which has fatty chunks of pork and it’s not nice at all. Even my chinese friends wouldn’t touch it after a couple of bites- and they’ll eat almost everything!

2. In a frying pan, heat the oil.

3. Add the garlic and scallions, and let them sizzle for around 30 seconds or so.

4. Add the pork. Stir it around for a minute

5. Add the soy sauce. Stir it in.

6. Add the oyster sauce. Stir it in.

7. The hoisin sauce is the Chinese equivalent of barbeque sauce. It is very sweet. As I did not have actually barbequed pork, where you would use the hoisin sauce, I tried to help approximate the flavor by adding the hoisin sauce. Stir it in.

8. Add brown sugar. The recipe calls for white sugar, but I like the flavor of brown a bit more for this. Stir it in.

9. Add the dissolved flour. The recipe calls for corn starch, but I never use the stuff. Stir it in.

10. Let the pork cook for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. You’re cooking until there isn’t much fluid left, and it’s pretty thick and the pork is all cooked. You do not want to cook it until dry. That sauce is part of the goodness of the food. I’m not going to lie to you. At the end of this, it’s goinig to look like some pricey dog food.

11. Once done, set aside to cool and deal with the dough.

1. Take the dough out of the greased bowl and split it into two parts. On a lightly floured board, take each part and knead it for 2 minutes. You should end up with two lumps about the size of your original lump.

2. Combine lumps and roll into a snake about a foot and a half long by 2 inches in diameter.

3. Slice this snake about every centimeter, or a fingerwidth (depending on yoru fingers). Once sliced, separate each slice so it doesn’t mold back together, which happened to me. You ought to end up with 22-24 (I got 22, recipe claims 24)

4. Don’t worry if you’ve twisted the dough out of shape- it’s perfectly okay to take the dough piece, roll it into a ball and try re-flattening it.

5. Take each piece and flatten it with your palm a little, then take out your rolling pin and flatten it until it is around 4 inches in diameter or so. Place each rolled out piece onto a plate, without letting any touch each other (so around 5 per plate). Cover each plate with a slightly damp paper towel.

6. Now comes the tricky part. If the dough is a little dry face up, flip it over, so the part that was laying on the plate is face up- it ought to be moister.

7. Put about 1-2 tablespoons of the filling into each circle.

8. Once you put the filling into a circle, pinch it in half like a taco.

9. Take the two ends left and pinch them up to the top.

10. Cinch the open areas closed.

11. Give the top a slight twist.

12. Place onto a 3 inch square of aluminum foil.

13. Place into steamer.

14. Repeat this for every single one. This is very labor intensive and dull.

15. Once done with each plate, cover with a slightly damp paper towel.

16. Put aside for 1 hour to rise. Dough should be springy to the touch.

17. Place over rolling boiling water for 10 minutes. As you see, I didn’t have a steamer. I used these metal things instead. It also meant I could only cook 3-4 at a time. So this took much longer than it should have.

18. After ten minutes, open it up to examine. I know what you’re thinking- it doesn’t look done.

So take one and try it. I was astonished to find it really was done (they don’t look quite like they do in restaurants). I must say, this recipe utterly rawked! But my god it takes forever. One good thing- the notes say that once cooked, you can freeze them. When ready, let them thaw, and re-steam for 10 minutes. It’s just a thought.

To sum up. This is a godawful amount of work, especially if you don’t have a steamer. If/when you make it, feel free to double this up so you can freeze them and it’ll be more worthwhile- it’ll take you less time to make more than to make two separate batches. Bon appetit!

Edit: Joanna says "They don't look like they came from a restaurant- but they taste like they do." Gladdens my heart. My dough doesn't puff up as much as they do in restaurants. Could be different flour- I used all purpose, but I have seen high gluten reccomended as well. I will note that while mine end up shiny, restaurants end up dull. Maybe they cover them in oil or something so they grow bigger without developing a skin or something? I really honestly don't know. Again, however, that's really mostly aesthetic. Oh, Joanna also says "My only criticism is that they need more meat inside." So you mihgt want to keep that in mind for the future, folks.


Barb said...

Wow! That's awesome cooking!
Asti & I had baked buns in London. They used venison instead of pork. It was heavenly.

T Byro said...

I love your lavish illustrations and it looks delicious but the work involved looks intimidating.