For the past three months or so, I have been unable to cook, eat well and write. Sometime in the middle of December, I found out that I was pregnant. Shortly after that, my body was quickly possessed by nausea, fatigue and a new super power sense of smell. We spent our Christmas holidays visiting our relatives in Spain and the newly pregnant me unwillingly had to reject many delicious dishes of fideua, paella, jamon and even sweet pieces of turron. I lived on tea and dry crackers, but it’s all been worth it. I am going to be a mommy!
The last thing I can remember cooking and happily eating was siopao(sho-pow.) That is the Philippine name for it. It is a popular snack also found in China and other Southeast Asian countries. In China it goes by the name Bao. When I was a little girl, my family would all pile into our navy blue 12 passenger van and venture outside our borough of Queens for Manhattan’s Chinatown. As soon as we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, my mouth would begin to water. A warm, white, spongy bun with a scrumptious filling would soon be in my hands.
Now, when I say my family jumped in the car, I don’t just mean my immediate family such as my parents, myself and my two brothers. This also included my three aunts and my grandmother. Therefore, when we went to buy these buns we would get at least two dozen. One siopao was never enough. Two of my aunts would leave the car and head to the shop. The rest of us stayed behind in our family bus, most likely double parked, as we excitedly searched for their return among the crowds of people. In each of their arms, would be a white cardboard box filled with our steamed goodies.
The buns came in a variety of fillings: red bean paste, sweet roasted pork, tofu and vegetables or chicken and egg. The fillings, although very tasty, were never that important to me. I was more interested in eating the doughy parts of the steamed bun. I enjoyed their soft spongy texture and can remember many times being scolded for not eating all of my food!
Siopao is still a family favorite and when I am back in NYC, we make a trip to one of the many Chinese or Filipino bakeries that serve them. Nowadays, we don’t even have to leave Queens to enjoy them, she has her very own Chinatown and Little Manila. Sadly, I can’t say the same about Prague. Some days before I discovered I was pregnant, a craving for siopao had hit me. The only way to satisfy myself, was to make them. Fortunately, I had Andrea Nguyen’s book, “Asian Dumplings” on hand and her easy to follow recipe for Zheng Bao (steamed filled buns.)
Siopao is not something you can easily whip up, but it is worth the time and effort, especially when they are unavailable. I was actually surprised by the way my batch had turned out. The similarity of the texture and flavor of the buns quickly reminded me of the kind my family would purchase in NYC’s Chinatown. I couldn’t believe these were made by my own two hands. Between my husband and I, the siopaos didn’t last for very long. Two for a snack, two for dinner and two for next day’s lunch.
A few weeks later, at a routine check up at the doctor’s office, the sonogram revealed that I was carrying twins! Funnily enough, at that stage the two circles she was pointing to on the screen, known as gestational sacs, resembled two small siopao buns. Ironic- that the last thing I remember joyfully cooking and eating were these buns and here I am waiting for the two in my tummy to arrive.
Siopao (adapted from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen)
1 1/2 teaspoons of instant dry yeast
3/4 cup of lukewarm water
2 Tablespoons of a neutral oil
2 Tablespoons of sugar
2 teaspoons of baking powder
In a small bowl, add yeast then the water. Let it sit for a minute.
Then mix in the oil and dissolve the yeast. Set it aside.
In a food processor, add the sugar, baking powder and flour.
Pulse it two to three times to mix well.
Then with the motor running, pour the yeast/water mixture through the tube.
After 30 seconds, it should start to form into a ball. If it doesn’t, add a few drops of water.
Run the machine for another 45-60 seconds.
It should form into a ball, with a few pieces of dough sticking to the sides.
Take it out and on a lightly floured surface, knead it for a few minutes, until it feels medium soft.
The dough should not stick to your fingers.
Place the ball of dough into a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
Cover it with some plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for 45 minutes or until it has doubled.
After it had doubled, punch it down.
If you press the dough and it springs up with a slight indentation left behind, it is ready!
Shrimp, Tofu and Veggie Filling ( should be prepared ahead of time and can be refrigerated for up to 2 days)
In a small bowl, combine the following:
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 Tablespoons lukewarm water
2 1/2 Tablespoons of light soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
Stir together well, making sure the sugar crystals dissolve well.
Then set aside.
2 Tablespoons Canola Oil
1 large scallion, chopped into thin slices
1 cup of cabbage, finely shredded (omit thick center part)
1/2 block of firm tofu, sliced or chopped into fine pieces
1 medium-sized carrot, sliced into thin pieces
6-8 small mushrooms, chopped into tiny pieces
1 cup of cooked shrimp, diced into small pieces
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in a Tablespoon of water.
Note: The smaller the vegetables are cut, the easier it is to place the filling into the dough.
In a wok or medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.
Add the scallions, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
Add the tofu and vegetables.
Stir to combine and then add the sauce.
Cook for 3-5 minutes.
Then add the shrimp. Stir and mix well.
Cook for another minute.
Then add the cornstarch mixture and cook for another half-minute.
Check seasonings and add to taste, only if needed.
Set aside and cool.
Assembling the Siopao:
Pre-cut 12 4X4 squares of wax or parchment paper
Take the ball of dough and divide it in half.
Place one ball on a lightly floured surface.
The other half goes back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
With two hands, shape the ball into a long log.
Then divide the dough into 6 small pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball and then flatten it out with a rolling pin or shape with your hands.
The center of should be thicker than the sides.
Take a spoonful of the filling and place it in the middle of the dough.
Lift the edges of the dough and bring them all to the center.
Pinch and close.
Turn it over and place on a piece of parchment paper.
You can rest the buns on a baking pan or cookie sheet.
Do the same for the rest of the dough.
Let it rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
To cook the buns:
Prepare the steamer equipment 10 minutes before the dough’s second rising is complete.
When the buns have risen, place the buns in the steamer and let it cook for about 12 minutes.
Remove each bun with a spatula and allow them to cool on a wire rack.
Remind your eaters to remove the paper before eating!
What to do with the leftover buns (if there are any…)
Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. It can be left out overnight or refrigerated for up to a week, frozen for a month.
To reheat, best to steam them for 5 minutes or dab a few drops of water on top of the bun and place in microwave for 30 seconds.
If there is leftover filling, you can wrap some in dumpling wrappers and pan fry or steam them!