Everyone gets a craving for some food item from their past at some point in their life. The trigger can be as innocent as a whiff of garlicky grease from a parking lot, watching a cooking show or travel program on TV, flipping through a magazine, etc. It doesn’t take much to make me go stir crazy for days hankering after some delectable fare from the past. Recently, mine was triggered by an email from Toronto about a late-night snack (宵夜) run with a photo of the little grease bombs –shengjian baos (生煎包) – Shanghainese pan-fried pork-filled buns.
For those Torontonians, satisfying their craving was as easy as calling in their order, getting in their car to pick up the order and head home to stuff their faces. Unfortunately, for us Minnesotans, not so easy to find these crispy-bottomed juicy one-biters.
What to do? Try making it at home! Of the numerous recipes online (make sure the one you pick is for the pan-fired baos and NOT the soupy steamed ones), I came across a “Nommy Noms” one that did not look too involved or complicated in case you, too, would like to try.
First of all, what is shengjian bao? It is a popular Shanghai street and snack food. Often eaten at breakfast by Shanghainese, the baos have been around for a long time (since the 19th century, by one account). Supposedly, the Emperor Qianlong was very fond of it and introduced it to the imperial palace in Beijing after eating it in Shanghai. The “skin” of the bao is made from semi-leavened dough and the filling consists of juicy gelatinous pork that’s almost soupy when eaten. It’s like a potsticker married a soupy dumpling! They are often served with a vinegary dipping sauce.
The magic of these baos lies in the cooking: in a hot frying pan with oil so the bottom gets crispy and golden brown. This is responsible for the signature contrast of these baos: crispy bottoms, soft slightly chewy tops with small amount of hot “soup” inside.
In the process of looking for a recipe, I found out there are apparently three “schools” of this Shanghainese snack and it’s all about the thickness of the “skin” and degree of soupiness of the filling.
The thick-dough school (from the Da Hu Chun chain in Shanghai) has a puffy skin with no juice in the filling. Eater is meant to order a bowl of soup on the side with this version. On the other end of the spectrum, the thin-skinned one from the Xiao Yang chain has lots of “soup” and is perfect when eaten hot, but once cooled down, they look deflated and sadly “dimpled.” But they’re still tasty while cold, so looks aren’t everything! And the medium-thick-skinned ones? The dough is slightly puffy and the filling has a little bit of soupy liquid. These are the signature item from the Dong Tai Xing chain. Unlike Goldilocks, there is no “Just right!” here. It’s what you like!
Thick, puffy skin with no-soup in filling
Medium thick skin with juicy, but not soupy, filling
Thin skin with soupy filling that you eat with a spoon
And the best way to eat these tasty baos? Carefully and slowly. First, nibble a hole in the skin to let the steam vent, then slowly slurp the “soup” directly from the bao or from a spoon before gobbling the rest of the bao. This way, you won’t end up scalding your tongue and throat! Of course, you can also make a dipping sauce of soy and black vinegar with a touch of chilli oil.
For those visiting Hong Kong, Michelin-recommended Cheung Hing Kee as the place to get your fix! There are branches in Tsuen wan, Tsimshatsui, Mongkok, Sham Shui Po, Wanchai, Central and Tin Hau. If you’re not interested in flying to Asia, there’s a closer, highly rated place in Toronto for shengjian baos as well: Sang-Ji Fried Bao in North York. Their baos actually has the knotted top golden brown crisped and the bottom soft!
Sang-Ji Fried Bao’s shengjian baos in cooking pan and on serving plate
And, any reader who knows of a decent place in the Twin Cities for shengjian baos, please email!
Keywords: shengjian baos, Shanghainese baos, fried bao
Making shengjian bao
1 2/3C all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 C lukewarm water
1/2 tsp instant dry yeast
2 T sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp oil
3/4 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. pork belly fat, diced
1/4 C minced scallions
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 T light soy sauce
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
1/2 tsp Chinese five spice powder
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
2 ttsp sesame oil
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 C Chinese chives (optional)
Ginger scallion water
1/2 C boiling water
1 T minced scallions
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 tsp peppercorns
1 stalk spring onion (chopped)
3 T toasted sesame seeds
1. Mix all the condiments with the pork, stirring in one direction (clockwise or anti-clockwise, you choose, but once you choose a direction keep stirring in THAT direction). Then add ginger-scallion water to pork mixture in two batches. Mix well until liquid is all absorbed evenly. Let sit in the fridge for 4 hours to let the flavours mingle. (*Note: If you don’t have dark soy, substitute it with light soy.)
2. Prepare the bao. In a large bowl, add warm water and mix in yeast, sugar, salt and oil. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Then add in sifted flour and knead on a floured surface until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, adding flour to the dough as needed. (Be careful not to add too much flour to the dough all at once! The dough will tend to be sticky, especially in the beginning, so don’t overdo the flour.)
3. Place kneaded dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling wrap and let it sit and rise in a warm, draft-free place. Or place in warm (170F) oven and let dough rise inside for about an hour.
4. Once risen, on a lightly floured surface, divide dough into 8-10 pieces. You can either roll it into a log and cut it, or roll it into a circle and divide it as pictured.
5. Roll out each piece of the divided dough to a circle, leaving a slightly thicker center and thinner toward the edge.
6. Add the meat filling onto the dough, and pinch and pleat the dough into bao form, as shown below.
7. Place the baos in an oiled tray, cover and let rise and rest for another 10 minutes.
8. Meanwhile chop the spring onions and toast the sesame seeds on an UNGREASED heated pan, taking care not to burn them!
9. Once the bao has risen, add oil to a pan and heat on medium high heat. Place the baos bottom down to brown until the underside is a crispy golden brown (about 2-3minutes).
10. Once the bottoms are a nice golden brown, add BOILING water to the pan till it covers about half an inch of the bao, cover with lid to let steam cook the top of the baos. As the steam cooks the baos, the steam will escape leaving the pan dry, about 5 minutes.
11. When done, place the baos on a plate, crispy golden side up and top with toasted sesame seeds and chopped green onions!