Eric Akis: Pork buns a Chinese New Year delight

Indulge in celebration with barbecue pork buns that are fun to make and worth the effort

Eric Akis

Chinese New Year began Tuesday and celebrations will continue until the next full moon, Feb. 19. Delicious food will be served to mark the occasion and few will be able to resist the temptation to enjoy it in a restaurant or at home.

Every year, around Chinese New Year, I am inspired to cook Chinese-style dishes. The process usually begins with me flipping through my collection of Chinese cookbooks looking for ideas.

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I must have had a real craving, because it did not take long for me to decide that one dish I definitely had to make was Chinese-style barbecue pork buns, cha siu bao.

These buns are steamed or baked (I chose the latter). They are golden, tender and filled with a succulent, chopped, somewhat saucy, barbecue pork filling.

As you can see from today’s recipe, there are a few steps involved, especially if you make your own barbecue pork, as I did. But your reward will be very yummy, savoury buns to enjoy with Chinese tea.

The recipe yields 12 medium-sized buns. Any leftover buns will freeze well, to thaw, warm and enjoy at another time.

Baked Chinese-Style Barbecue Pork Buns

Enjoy these buns as a snack with tea, serve them as an appetizer, serve them alongside a Chinese-style soup, or make them one of the dishes served at a Chinese-style dinner buffet.

Preparation time: 60 minutes, plus dough-rising time

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: 12 medium-sized buns

For the pork filling

1/3 cup water

1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp hoisin sauce

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1 Tbsp oyster sauce

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp Chinese-style Shaoxing rice cooking wine, sherry or brandy (see Note 1)

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp cornstarch

1 1/3 cups homemade (see recipe below) or store-bought Chinese-Style Barbecue Pork, cut into small cubes (see Note 2)

Place all ingredients, except pork, in a nine-inch skillet and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook and stir mixture until thickened, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and mix in the pork. Let the pork filling cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until needed below.

For the buns

1 cup lukewarm (not hot) water

1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) traditional (active dry) yeast

3 Tbsp granulated sugar

2 tsp vegetable oil, plus some for the bowl

2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for kneading

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 large beaten egg yolk

2 tsp sesame seeds

• hot chili sauce or hoisin sauce, for dipping (optional)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water, yeast, sugar and 2 tsp oil (see Eric’s options). Let stand five to 10 minutes, until yeast is dissolved.

Add 2 1/4 cups of the flour, baking powder and salt to the bowl and knead on medium speed until dough forms that just starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If dough does not pull away, add flour in 1 Tbsp amounts until it does. (The dough should be fairly soft and a little bit sticky). Knead dough on medium speed five to six minutes.

Set the dough in a lightly oiled, deep bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 75 to 90 minutes.

Line a large baking sheet (mine was 18-by-13-inches) with parchment paper. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Cut dough in half. Roll each half dough into a nine-inch long cylinder. Cut each cylinder, widthwise, into six equal pieces. Flour your fingers, then lift up and press each piece of dough into a four- to five-inch round. Make sure the dough is a little thicker in the centre and a little thinner around the edges.

Place a heaping tablespoon of the barbecue pork filling in the centre of each round of dough. Pull the edges of the dough over the filling and pinch tightly at the top so the bun is completely sealed. Set buns on the baking sheet, pinched side down, ensuring there’s a 1 1/2- to two-inch space between each one. Cup and gently press down a bit on each bun so they sit flat. You can see photos of the steps here.

Cover buns with a tea towel and let rise for about one hour, until about doubled in size.

When buns have risen, preheat oven to 375 F. Uncover buns and very lightly, but evenly, brush the top of each bun with beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle buns with sesame seeds.

Bake buns in the middle of the oven 20 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, with some chili sauce or hoisin sauce for dipping, if desired.

Store any leftover buns, once cooled to room temperature, in the refrigerator up to three days, or wrap and freeze them, to thaw and enjoy at another time. In either case, before serving them, take the chill out by warming the buns a few minutes in a 350 F oven.

Note 1: Shaoxing rice cooking wine is sold at food stores in Victoria’s Chinatown and in the Asian-foods aisle of some supermarkets, such as Fairway Market. If you do not want to use it, sherry or brandy, replace with 1 Tbsp apple juice.

Note 2: Three pieces of the Chinese-style pork from the recipe below should yield the amount needed here. If you decided to use store-bought barbecue pork, sold in places such as Victoria’s Chinatown, 250 grams should yield the amount of cubed meat needed here.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a stand mixer, you could mix the dough by hand. Place the water, yeast, sugar and oil in a medium to large bowl. When yeast is dissolved, with a heavy spoon, gradually mix in 1 3/4 cups of the flour, baking powder and the salt, until wet, loose dough forms. Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Knead and mix in 1/2 to 3/4 cup more flour, until smooth dough is created. Knead dough six to eight minutes. Let dough rise and make buns as described.

Chinese-Style Barbecue Pork

Here’s a homemade version of the Chinese-style barbecue pork you can buy in places such as Victoria’s Chinatown. It will make more than you need for the barbecue pork bun recipe, but the leftovers can be diced or sliced and used in other Chinese-style dishes, such as fried rice, chow mein or wonton soup. It also freezes well.

Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Makes: About 470 grams barbecue pork

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1 Tbsp hoisin sauce

1 Tbsp ketchup

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1 Tbsp Chinese-style Shaoxing rice cooking wine, sherry or brandy (see Note under Chinese-style Barbecue Pork Buns recipe)

1/2 tsp five-spice powder

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp minced fresh ginger

1 large garlic clove, minced

500 grams boneless pork chops, each cut lengthwise in half l (see Note)

• vegetable oil or oil spray

Combine the soy sauce, hoisin, ketchup, sugar, rice wine (or sherry or brandy), five-spice powder, sesame oil, ginger and garlic in a sided dish just large enough to hold the pork. Add the pork and turn to coat. Cover, refrigerate and marinate the pork at least four hours, or overnight.

When the pork has marinated, preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set a baking rack over the baking sheet. Lightly brush or spray the bars of the rack with oil. Set the pork on the baking rack, brush with half the remaining marinade in the dish, then roast 15 minutes.

Turn each piece of pork over, then brush with the remaining marinade. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until the pork is cooked through. Cool pork to room temperature, set on a plate, cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to cut some to use in the Chinese-Style Barbecue Pork Buns recipe, or another recipe calling for Chinese-style barbecue pork.

Note: Three, one-inch thick boneless pork loin chops (or maybe four, depending on the size of the loin they were cut from) should equate to the 500 grams needed here.

How to shape pork buns

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Step 1: Fill each round of dough with a heaping tablespoon of the barbecue pork filling.
New_c1-akis C006619.jpg
Step 2: Pull the edges of the dough over the filling and pinch tightly at the top so the bun is completely sealed.
New_c1-akis D006620.jpg
Step 3: Set each filled bun on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet, pinched-side-down. Cup and gently press down a bit on each bun so they sit flat. Let the buns rise, then bake as described in the recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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