Plain Chinese Steamed Buns: Ancient Sword Heroes’ Power Snack

Growing up, I (as well as most Thai kids who had access to television) watched my share of Hong Kong TV series most of which were about jungle-trekking, mountain-climbing sword heroes — kind of like this or this.

How big of a fan was I? Well, let’s just say that when the main character was poisoned by his own sword trainer, literally stabbed in the back by a best friend-turned-enemy, or discovered that his girlfriend was his step-sister, I cried my eyes out. Not only was I emotionally involved, I was also very much physically involved. Everyday after school, my brother and I would practice all kinds of sword techniques very rigorously as if we were in Shaolin training camp. It was sheer miracle that all those years, neither one of us accidentally put the other’s eyeballs out with our homemade bamboo swords. (If you ever imagine young Leela in a pink frou-frou dress hosting a tea party for her stuffed animals, please erase those false images from your mind posthaste.)

It has been several years and I have, thankfully, outgrown my fondness for period Chinese TV shows. In fact, if you were to ask me to name a few favorite shows or characters, I would have to think really hard. One thing I remember vividly, though, is what those ancient sword masters snack on.

Let me set the scene. It’s a sunny day in the jungle. Cheery Chinese music (in major key, of course) is played in the background. Our handsome traveling sword hero arrives at an inn-cum-teahouse. A witless-looking waiter dutifully approaches the table to take the order. Unaware of an archvillain incognito sitting at the next table, our sword master nonchalantly answers, “mantou and tea.”

This is what annoys the heck out of me — their choice of food. Their sole choice of food. Honest to Confucius, they never order anything else. I’m not making this up. Ask any Hong Kong movie fans. Everybody who stops at an inn always orders mantou and tea. Ten times out of ten, that is the case. Good luck hoping that one of these days someone would break the food monotony and order Peking duck or wonton soup. It never happens. I don’t know why the dumb waiters even bother taking orders. Even us viewers know before the question is uttered what the answer is going to be. So whenever one of these swordmen walk in, just bring out the blessed buns and get on with the storyline already.

This is preposterous. You see, I can deal with all the other unrealistic elements of period Chinese movies. Okay, so these guys can climb walls or jump up 30 feet off the ground. Some can fly or travel underground like a mole. I don’t nitpick these people on how they manage to keep the hair perfectly-styled and the makeup completely smudge-free after the most physically-grueling sword fight or years of hiking up and down the mountains. I’m even okay with the fact that even though these people practically live in the jungle, they manage to show up in immaculately clean and apparently professionally-pressed clothes always.

What makes me snort and chuckle is how they can single-handedly slay an army of swordmen and five dragons while subsisting on nothing else but plain steamed buns and tea.

Then incredulity leads to curiosity. Inexplicably, I find myself asking some odd questions. Could there be something magical about mantow? Could this be considered snack food for ancient sword heroes just as Wheaties is, supposedly, the breakfast of modern-day champions? (This means if ancient Chinese steamed buns were packaged the same way modern cereals are packaged, the faces of the sword heroes would grace the front of mantou boxes.) I quickly set out to find a mantou recipe.

Over the last few years, one recipe after another has failed. Finally, thanks to my friend LT whose mom has been making mantow for so long that she can make them with her eyes closed, this great recipe landed on my kitchen counter.

This recipe is for plain steamed buns to be eaten as a side. If desired, it can also be filled with your choice of filling, savory or sweet.

Plain Chinese Steamed Buns: Sole Sustenance for Heroes of Old
Makes 12 buns

  • Make a sponge starter by mixing together in a large mixing bowl 1 tablespoon active dry yeast, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1/3 all-purpose flour (I experimented with bread flour, but found lower-protein flour to yield better results), and 1/3 cup lukewarm water. Let the mixture stand for 30 minutes.
  • Prepare 12 3″x3″ pieces of wax paper.
  • Once the sponge is ready, add to the mixing bowl, 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (LT’s mom uses melted lard and suggests vegetable shortening as a possible alternative, but I went rogue). Add to the mixture just enough lukewarm water for the dough to form a ball. Add the water a little bit at a time; you want to err on adding too little as you can always add more. Knead the dough until it feels satiny and smooth in your hands. The surface of the dough should be smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot for 3 hours.
  • Punch down the dough, sprinkle one more teaspoon of baking powder on the surface of the dough and lightly knead it in. Roll the dough into a long log. If the dough is too sticky, add flour on your work surface as needed. Cut the dough log into 12 equal pieces and place them on the prepared wax paper squares. Cover the buns with a towel and let them rise once more for 30 minutes.
  • Once the dough has risen, get a steamer going. You want the water to be gently boling over medium heat when the buns go in. Make sure you allow about two inches of space around each bun as you don’t want them to touch each other as they expand in the steamer. Steam the buns for 10-12 minutes. (Whatever you do, don’t let the moisture collected on the inside of the steamer lid drop on the buns; it causes very ugly blisters on the surface. Trust me.) Remove the buns from the steamer and let them cool under a towel.
  • Additional Note (added 3-3-09): As I have noted in the recipe, lower-protein flour works better. I made another batch of this recipe again this afternoon using half all-purpose flour and half cake flour just to see how it would turn out. I actually like the combination of two flours better! Experiment to see what works best for you. Please see some tips and clarifications for this recipe here.

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