Bao Chika Wow

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?

 

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On second hand bookshop finds and Elizabeth David

A favourite thing to do when on holiday in smallish towns (and cities) is to visit the local second hand book shop. During the summer break in Whangarei I popped into one of its second hand book stores, The Piggery. The cooking sections in these bookstores can be quite hit and miss. Like with fashion, cooking and culinary books cycle through trends and fads.

Photography style changes, the types of recipes (jelly moulds!?) as well as the category of recipes (microwave cookery anyone?). If you’re lucky you can pick up some rather vintage cookbooks (I picked up a war time rations cookbook in Hastings once) and some rather odd books (Be Bold with Bananas). And there is a lot of junk such as recipe books for specific branded appliances.

breadAt The Piggery, I managed to pick up a copy of Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. David is one of Britain’s best food writers and her books are classics among food writers and chefs.  Her influence also reached other countries as well. Many of my Australian and New Zealand cookbooks references her recipes and writing.

I started reading the book last night and got curious about who she was as a person and did a quick google search. What an interesting woman of her time and a fascinating life she led!

Her early life

Starting as an art student in Paris, she then turned to acting and when this did not work out, she then ran off with a married man and ended up in Italy. The couple then narrowly escaped getting trapped by the German invasion of Greece during WWII. They split in Egypt. Before marrying her husband Tony David, she had a number of lovers in Cairo, Egypt. According to her biographer Artemis Cooper, ‘she enjoyed them for what they were…with one exception she did not fall in love.’

Her influence

When she arrived back in England after her travels overseas to post war Britain, it was as if she had returned to a different country.

Returning to England after her travels overseas was like returning to a different country. Her long-time editor described her as being “upset: shocked, even.” David described food in Britain as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. It was a jarring contrast to the fresh and seasonal food she had enjoyed overseas.

She began writing about her memories from her time overseas. Her first book in 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food contained recipes that called for Mediterranean ingredients such as basil, figs and olive oil. This first book was essentially a piece of ‘imaginative fiction’ as readers were unable to access the ingredients due to war rationing.  She followed this with books on Italian and French cuisine.

Her writing style

Her writing style was opinionated, to the point.

For instance, she despised the word ‘crispy’ because she couldn’t understand what it conveyed that ‘crisp’ did not.

It is also wonderfully eloquent and expressive

Her thoughts on cooking in summer:

Summer cooking implies a sense of immediacy, a capacity to capture the essence of the fleeting moment

Or her thoughts on why the kitchen was a place to invest time and money:

Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or in your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.

On the pleasures of the Mediterranean:

To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.

And returning to the book that prompted this blog post, her thoughts on toast:

It isn’t only fictional heroes to whom toast means home and comfort. It is related of the Duke of Wellington – I believe by Lord Ellesmere – that when he landed at Dover in 1814, after six years’ absence from England, the first order he gave at the Ship Inn was for an unlimited supply of buttered toast.

What do you think about Elizabeth David? Have you read any of her books?