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?



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?  

Hush Puppies Y’all

It’s funny to think that the words that we use everyday can be considered historical relics. We forget that our day-to-day vocabulary is peppered with expressions and phrases that preserve elements of our history, offering insight into the ordinary lives of our ancestors.

The ways in which we refer to different types of meat is a fascinating example of class and authority in English society during the 11th century.

Sheep, cow, ox all have an Ango-saxon root. In contrast, what we call meat once it gets to the table (boeuf, mutton, veal) has a French root. These differences emerged in the post Norman invasion of England. Those who were preparing the meat were Anglo Saxon commoners, hence why the names for livestock have retained an Anglo-Saxon origin. In contrast, the names for prepared meat have a French root because the meat would have already been prepared for and eaten by the Norman nobility and aristocracy (who spoke French).

All these musings on language are interesting segue into my bread of the month – hush puppies!

How deep fried cornmeal bread balls came to have the delightful name ‘hush puppies’ is an interesting insight into the folklore and cultural history of the southern part of the United States in the 1700s. There are several versions for how hush puppies got their name:

The one common thread is that this fried cornmeal was used to “hush the dogs.” I have heard that Confederate soldiers used it to hush their dogs when the Union troops were getting near. I also have heard a similar story in which runaway slaves would use this favourite food to hush the dogs. The characters change but the story is the same.

The link to the need to quell barking dogs is also found in this story:

Hushpuppies are also said to have gotten their name from the dredging of the catfish that would have been thrown out. Being thrifty, the cook from the house would send them down the slave quarters and the women added a little milk, egg and onion and fried it up. It is said they were tossed to the dogs to keep them quiet while the food was being transferred from the pot to the table. “Hush puppy! Hush puppy!”

There is also reason to believe that the name developed because refined southern ladies didn’t want to be known for eating fried dough which was considered lowly:

Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins cites a Southern reader’s account that in the South the aquatic reptile called the salamander was often known as a “water dog” or “water puppy.” These were deep fried with cornmeal dough and formed into sticks. They were called “hushpuppies” because eating such a lowly food was not something a Southern wife would want known to her neighbours.

If you’re interested, the second story appears to be the most accepted origin story.

My attempt

I made my hush puppies with a recipe from Joy.

I’ve never had hush puppies before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from them. The dough didn’t seem to bind together and when I put them in the deep fryer they kept on falling apart. But I did I managed to refine my spooning technique by the third batch.

Hush puppies don’t have a particularly strong flavour. There was a hint of spiciness from the cayenne pepper but not much else. If was going to make these again, I would chop up some jalapenos and add these to the dough for a fiery taste.

I served mine in true southern style – with BBQ pulled pork and coleslaw.

Vietnam reflections: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

We did Vietnam in 9 days. It gave us enough time to get to the places that we were interested in but it didn’t exactly feel like a relaxing holiday. If you want to do all the interesting historical and cultural things, as well as the laidback holiday type things I would recommend adding a few more days on. Fifteen full days would be a decent amount of time.

We travelled to four main places – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hue, Hoi An and Hanoi. We were briefly in Da Nang but only for that evening. This is a rundown of what we got up to in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam up until the end of the Vietnam War. It’s bustling, sprawling and a bit smoggy. When we first arrived, we were struck by the fierce humidity – it was like walking into a bag of popcorn that was fresh out of the microwave. We stayed in the backpacker’s district in a reasonably nice hotel called Seventy Hotel.  The staff were helpful and friendly and the room itself was clean and well kept. Unfortunately, on our second day there the air conditioning was turned off by some construction work happening in building next door. It was a particularly painful experience, especially as we had to lug our fat suitcases down four flights of narrow stairs.

Bitexco Financial Tower

This was one of the first tourist things we did when we first arrived in Saigon and easy enough to do when you’re slightly jet lagged. We went up in the afternoon and enjoyed several cocktails in tower’s two bars. One thing I really liked about going here first was that it gave you a really useful perspective of how large and sprawling Saigon is as a city. The city never seemed to end and merely faded away over the horizon into smog and humidity. The drinks we had here were probably the most expensive we had in our time in Vietnam, but it was nice to have a relaxing drink overlooking the city lights. As the sun set, surrounding towers lit up with a multitude of colourful lights and projections.

Ben Thanh Markets

We popped in here on our first day and were quite overwhelmed by the heat in here and the amount of hustling that we encountered. We didn’t stay long here as we didn’t see anything that we particularly liked and we were still largely suffering the effects of jet lag. It’s worth going to and checking out but the items for sale are neither here nor there.

Củ Chi tunnels

I would strongly recommend doing this trip. It takes most of the day, but we managed to also squeeze in the War Remnants Museum at the end.

A lot of what you see at the tunnels has been reconstructed or modified to suit western tourists. The tunnels are a good example of this – they were originally a lot smaller and narrower but have been widened to accommodate the *ahem* wider girths of westerners.

I was struck while wandering around the complex, just how frightening it must have been for American GIs to fight in Vietnam. Their frame of reference when it came to war would have been trenches, tanks and most importantly, an obvious enemy. Seeing the small tunnels where Viet Cong would pop up and attack American soldiers gives you a sense of how there simply was no clear enemy lines, no ‘western front and how disconcerting this would have been.

War Remnants Museum

I don’t know how anyone could visit this museum and not adjust their perspective of war and conflict. Yes, it’s a huge propaganda exercise but it does have some worthwhile pieces and interesting artefacts from the Vietnam War that illustrate the grisly and awfulness of war.  There is a massive area devoted to detailing the effect of Agent Orange which shows images of people born with severe birth defects and illustrates the enormous human cost of war on the civilian population and in particularly, the devastating long term impact that this chemical warfare had years after the conflict finished.

Reunification Palace

When Joe and I first saw this palace we immediately thought the design had been inspired by a New Zealand architecture firm, Warren and Mahoney who are known for designing several 70s Stalinist style buildings for New Zealand universities. The Palace itself is a worthwhile visit and has a rich history. It was the site which marked the end of the Vietnam War when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed it gates during the Fall of Saigon. Most of the rooms have been preserved as they were in the 1970s so it gives you a snap shot into what the decorating style and fashion was around this time. Most fascinating was the bunker rooms underneath the palace with all the technical equipment and maps preserved from the 1970s as well.

Fine Arts Museum

We did this in the afternoon on our last day in Saigon before we departed for Hue. The museum itself is a gorgeous yellow French colonial building and although it is right near one of Saigon’s busy roundabouts, it feels very quiet and laidback. It has a range of artwork – paintings, pottery, sculpture and some weapons. It houses what could quite possibly be the oldest thing I have ever seen – a 4th century statue of Buddha. It also houses a vast selection of art depicting the Vietnam War and various propaganda pieces. Well worth a visit if you’re looking for something a bit more relaxing.

Saigon Square

Another market – but this one has air conditioning! Worth going to this during the day and then heading to the night market near the Ben Thanh markets in the evening. Joe bought some fake Dr Dre headphones from here and I bought some pants that were the wrong size.

Final thoughts

It was initially quite overwhelming coming from a smaller (although quite sprawled) city of 1.3 million people to a city of 7.3 million people and it took some time to get used too.  I personally found Saigon the most humid of anywhere we went, but it did have plenty of cafes and the like to pop into and lap up the beautiful and sweet air con.  Learning to cross the road was fun but also quite terrifying. I think we got the knack of it in the end. The trick is to just start walking confidently across and road and let the cars and scooters make their way around you. Saigon was fun city to start our tour of Vietnam in. I would recommend spending 2 – 3 full days here.

Vietnam reflections: Part One

I thought I’d write a post about my recent travels through Vietnam. My partner Joe and I were only there for nine days, but we managed to pack a lot of history, culture and food into this short time. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on why Vietnam is an interesting place to travel to and what I’d recommend if you’re thinking of heading there.

I’m going to divide this into several themes and begin with why I wanted to go to Vietnam in the first place.

Vietnam’s history was the main reason for wanting to travel to the country. I studied Vietnamese history during high school and I found it very compelling.

As a country, Vietnam has suffered from its fair share of colonisation. It became independent from China in the 900s and flourished over the next couple of centuries. But its modern history is one of fighting foreign occupation: the French in the 19th century, the Japanese in the 1940s and then Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result of this, the Vietnamese developed a strong sense of national identity and fighting spirit. Some people have argued that it was resentment of foreign occupation and willingness to defend this (and even die for it) that played a crucial role in why the USA was never able to claim a victory in the Vietnam War. The USA became stuck in a quagmire, fighting against an enemy that was completely willing to fight for as long as possible to achieve its aim.

Understanding this history gave me a real sense of what motivated many Vietnamese to put their lives on the line to support the goal of removing foreign occupation. But it also made me interested in going to the place where all this history happened – being able to visit specific sites where key historical events occurred and get a sense of key moments that played a part in Vietnam’s formation as a nation. This was especially the case when I visited the Củ Chi tunnels which I will elaborate more on in a later post.

The Vietnam War was also a major theatre of where the Cold War played out between the USA and the USSR. One of the reasons why the USA became involved in Vietnam was a belief that if Vietnam fell into communist hands, it would create a domino effect in which other countries in South East Asia would fall to communism. As a former political studies student, it was particularly fascinating to be in a country that dominated so much of the USA’s foreign policy in the 60s and 70s and still continues to have an impact on US foreign policy today.

The Vietnam War also has a place in my own country’s history and its development as a nation. The Vietnam War was the first place that New Zealand did not fight alongside the United Kingdom (which was traditionally what we had done). Our involvement was highly controversial and sparked many protests, similar to the protest in the USA. These protests were significant as they marked the first time where the foreign policy between our two major political parties (Labour and National) began to significantly change with Labour wanting a more independent foreign policy. This all came to a head later on when New Zealand became nuclear free and refused to allow US ships to visit, sparking a cooling of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

This episode, interestingly enough, is now considered a major part of New Zealand’s national identity and various cultural myths have developed from this – particularly the David versus Goliath idea of New Zealand standing up to a superpower and refusing to back down when it came to nuclear power.

So, in a (very big nutshell) this is why Vietnam appealed to me as country to visit.

Củ Chi tunnels, War Remnants Museum and dinner at Ru Pho Bar