Two years ago I had the grand ambition to bake 12 different types of bread – ranging from relatively simple bread like Challah, to naturally fermented breads like Chickpea Loaf. I got about half way and then got busy with life and my little challenge got forgotten about.
But I’m back! Since picking up Elizabeth David’s book on English Yeast and Bread cookery I have been inspired to get back into it. No time limit this time though.
One of the breads I had on my list was Mantou.
Mantou are Chinese steamed buns. They are light and fluffy and very easy to make. The only downside is that I didn’t have a big enough steamer, so I had to cook them in batches which took ages.
Mantou is the name for the plain bun. When filled with sweet or savoury ingredients, they are known as Bao (note the pun in the title of this blogpost) which are also very delicious and make great snacks.
The buns themselves are pretty unassuming. They’re very plain but that’s the point of them. You use them to carry meats and other flavourful ingredients.
Despite their simplicity, they have a long history. Mantou/Bao have been mentioned in texts as early as the Warring States period in China which means that they are over 2000 years old.
They also play a starring role in Chinese folklore and are mentioned in the Romance of Three Kingdoms story:
According to Ming Dynasty scholar Lang Ying, the original name for mantou was barbarian’s head. During the Three Kingdom Period, barbarians used human heads to worship gods.
Chancellor Zhuge Liang went on a battle to suppress the Southern barbarians and won. On his way back, he and his army had to cross the Lu River, which had big, stormy waves. The locals told them that using human heads as a sacrifice was the only way to cross the river.
Zhuge Liang couldn’t bear to kill innocent people, so instead he ordered his soldiers to kill some of their animals and put beef and lamb into flour dough in the shape of a head and steam them, and then throw them into the river as fake heads. Since they were fake heads to fool the river god, they got the name Cheat Heads. Others say they represented barbarian’s heads, so they were called Barbarian’s Heads.
Thus, mantou were born from the good thoughts of Zhuge Liang. The mantou he made at that time were in fact modern-day meat buns.
These are my attempt at Mantou. They were very simple to make but I accidentally put them in the steaming the wrong way so they don’t have the same look that steamed buns in a Chinese supermarket would have. I used a recipe from the Guardian and make the accompanying pork belly to go with it. It was delicious! I would recommend making a whole heap of mantou and freezing them. That way you can then use a few of them each time with different fillings.
Have you tried home-made steam buns before? Do you have any tasty filling suggestions?