While on a recent trip to Taiwan, I was honored to spend a few irreplaceable hours in the home and kitchen of a local urban family. My generous host not only prepared a traditional Taiwanese breakfast, lunch, and dinner; but also took me shopping for the day's fresh ingredients and allowed me to get hands-on with a few of the recipes!
My intention was to learn how the local women (and men!) feed their families on a day-to-day basis, which to me is of central importance when immersing yourself in a new food culture. What fads people eat in restaurants and what trends famous chefs create don't hold a candle to the traditions upheld within the walls of a home kitchen, prepared lovingly by a home cook. And how one shops for groceries, organizes a pantry, and plans the weekly meals can be revealing of so much more than just their culinary prowess.
Prior to my arrival, I had naively convinced myself I would be visiting a secluded old farmhouse and cooking with an elderly grandmother, all while learning the closely guarded secrets of ancient Taiwanese cuisine. In my fantasy, we would gather still-warm chicken eggs from the backyard and pluck tropical fruit from lush trees outside the kitchen window. So you can imagine my surprise when the cab pulled in front of a monstrous high-rise in the dusty outskirts of Taipei. But it wasn't until I was ushered past both a 7-11 and a McDonald's in the building's lobby that my farm-to-table dreams were completely dashed.
Shoes of all shapes and sizes were piled in the hallway leading to the apartment and a glow-in-the-dark paper skeleton marked the entrance to the door. Rainbow crayoned walls hinted that an active family lived here. I was hurriedly greeted with a pair of gently-used Marriott slippers and escorted into the small but modern apartment. My host, an energetic young mother, was multitasking like a pro, playing songs on the 27-inch iMac for her screaming toddler while discreetly sweeping scattered toys into a closet. Wait, was this Taiwan or New York City? Maybe jet lag was finally getting the best of me...
The host pointed to a chair for me and suggested coffee. I'd been up since dawn so I jumped at the offer. A cup of lukewarm Nescafé arrived in a Texas-sized mug, San Antonio scrawled across the side. It was delicious. While she slipped back to the kitchen to finish up cooking, I took a brief moment to settle into my surroundings. It was the last day of my two-week journey, and I was still reeling from sensory overload. But in this house at this very moment, all felt calm. And I felt welcome. Just then my stomach gurgled loudly and I was reminded of my purpose here. I wondered what could possibly be for breakfast? One more fish stomach and I was going to scream.
As if she heard my hesitation, a bowl of steaming, snowy-white balls appeared followed immediately by a platter of glistening sliced sweet potatoes. She nudged the plump little buns towards me and I reluctantly put one on my plate. After being bombarded with more than a few strange and unfamiliar ingredients during the trip, I'd learned not to be fooled by something so innocent looking as a bowl of fluffy dumplings. I took a little nibble, then another. Okay, still alive. It wasn't until I reached the meaty center that I realized I was eating a glorified sausage biscuit: a savory pork filling blanketed in a soft yeasty bun. It was hearty, satisfying, and in a strange sense, familiar. I polished off two more in the blink of the eye.
She picked at her plate of sweet potatoes, explaining to me she was watching her (already slim) figure. She then elaborated that her husband and sons preferred eating Egg McMuffins for breakfast, however she enjoyed fresh fruits and vegetables. She confessed it was a constant battle. (I knew immediately we were going to get along splendidly. My boyfriend would have fit in quite nicely, too.) I reached for another steamed bun and inquired about the recipe. I couldn't wait to make them back home; they were going to be a huge hit with my friends. She stared at me blankly for a moment. "Oh, the baozi? I get these frozen at the supermarket and just heat them up in the microwave."
I sat there in shock for a moment. Not necessarily because my delicious breakfast came from a box, but that this foreign women, so strange to me in so many ways, was actually not a stranger at all. She was smart, and honest, and completely unapologetic for her choices. (And why should she be?) A modern lady in every sense of the word. She then mentioned she did in fact know how to make them from scratch, but that the ones from the store were just as good. Maybe even better. She said most families now purchased them frozen. It was just easier. I nodded with complete understanding — Blueberry Eggos are no stranger to my toaster oven.
We continued chatting in broken English for a while, discussing food and cooking and family. I learned about her husband's love for T.G.I. Friday's and his obsession with Western food. I learned that she taught herself recipes from American cookbooks but still very much preferred her native cuisine. I could have just sat and listened for hours. But with a quick glance at the clock she jumped out of her chair. We were late for the market! And just like that, we were out the door and headed to the largest outdoor "farmers market" in New Taipei City. And my adventure continued...
Steamed Pork Buns (Baozi)
For the buns
1 tablespoon (1 packet) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, plus additional as needed
4 cups all-purpose flour (I like White Lily)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the filling
8 ounces ground pork
1/4 cup finely chopped Chinese cabbage or bok choy
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sherry or rice wine
For the buns, in a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Allow to proof until bubbly and creamy, about 10 minutes.
Sift the flour, sugar, and baking powder into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Add the salt. Turn the mixer on low speed, and pour in the warm water-yeast mixture until the dough begins to form a ball. If it looks too dry, add more water, tablespoon by tablespoon, until it forms a ragged clump. Continue to knead on low speed for 5 to 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth, shiny, and springy to the touch.
(Alternately, you can do this by hand: Dribble the water into a large bowl holding the flour mixture, using one hand to slowly mix it in a circular direction. When it forms the ragged clump, turn the dough out onto a floured countertop and knead by hand until the dough is smooth and shiny.)
Place the dough in a well-oiled bowl, flipping the dough to coat it in oil, and cover with plastic wrap. Store the bowl in a warm, draft free place until it doubles in size, approximately 2 to 3 hours.
Prepare the filling (recipe below). Cut 16 squares (approximately 3-inches each) of wax or parchment paper. Spray each square with cooking oil.
Punch the dough down, then divide in half. Roll each half into a rectangular log. Using a pastry cutter, slice each log into 8 pieces. Roll a slice into a ball, then shape it into a thin, flat disc (like a pancake). Try to keep the center of the disc thicker than the edges. (Once steamed, this keeps the bun from being too doughy on one side and too thin on the other.)
Spoon a dollop of filling into the center of the disc. Pull the edges up around the filling and pinch together to form a bun. Place the bun on a square of parchment paper and cover with a towel. Continue this process with the rest of the dough until all of the buns are filled. Allow the buns to rest for 20 - 30 minutes.
To cook, prepare the steamer basket. Working in batches, position filled buns (each still on its parchment square!) into the steamer, allowing room on all sides. (The cooked buns will be up to 50 percent larger.) I placed the buns seam-side down so they would have a smooth, round top.
Steam the buns for 15 minutes, then remove the pan and basket from the heat. Let sit for 5 minutes before removing the lid. Remove the parchment paper from the bottom of the buns and serve immediately. To reheat heat buns (they will keep for a few days in the refrigerator), pop in the microwave for 30 seconds or re-steam.
For the filling, combine the pork, cabbage, scallions, soy, sesame oil, and sherry in a large bowl. Set aside.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)