Vegetable Bao (Tzai Bao)

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The Chinese festival of Ching-Ming is when people pay their respects to deceased relatives. On these auspicious days, it was customary to be vegetarian. I recall being taken by my grandmother on one occasion to visit the grave of my great-grandfather. I was daunted by the prospect. We paid our respects and burned incense and said our prayers and I remember taking hold of my grandmother’s hand because she looked so sad. She took me in her lap and we sat on a bench and ate her homemade Tzai Bao, which are these little buns. It was cold but comforting.

If you have the time, this recipe is very therapeutic and a joy to make. Great for a family occasion or as an afternoon treat.

Preparation time: 4 hours including rising
Cooking time: 13 minutes

Ingredients

For the Dough

  • tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup warm water
  • ¾ teaspoon dried yeast (or teaspoons fresh yeast)
  • 1⅔ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder

For the Filling

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed and finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, crushed and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • small handful of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), leaves and stalks, washed and finely chopped
  • 2 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, stalks discarded, finely chopped
  • ¾ oz mock chicken (soya or gluten substitute)
  • handful of woodear mushrooms, soaked for 20 minutes, finely chopped
  • 1 handful canned bamboo shoots, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • pinch of ground white pepper
  • dash of sesame oil
  • oz mung bean noodles, soaked and chopped

Method

  1. To make the dough, dissolve the sugar in the water, add the yeast, stirr gently, then leave for 8–10 minutes until frothy.
  2. Sift the flour into a bowl, add the yeast mix and the oil and work into a dough. Lightly flour a work surface. Turn out and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic (about 8 minutes). If it seems too sticky, knead in more flour.
  3. Lightly oil a bowl, place the dough in it and lightly oil the surface of the dough. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave at room temperature to rise for 3 hours.
  4. Once risen, uncover the dough, punch down, then turn onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten the dough, make a well in the center and add the baking powder. Pinch all the sides together and lightly knead. Then roll into a long sausage about 1–1½ in in diameter.
  5. Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball, then roll out with a rolling pin and flatten to make disks about 4–4¾ in diameter and ¼ in thick. Set aside on the floured surface and cover with plastic wrap to prevent the dough from drying out.
  6. Heat a wok over high heat then add the oil. Stir fry the filling ingredients in order, cooking each one for a few minutes before adding the next, and season with pepper and sesame oil. Throw in the drained mung bean noodles last and mix carefully so that they do not break up too much. Set aside the filling to cool.
  7. Take the pieces of dough, place a large tablespoon of filling in the center of each, pinch the sides of the dough to make the outer edges thinner than the center then gather the sides to the middle, (when they are steamed the filling pushes through the top of the bun to spill open slightly.
  8. Oil the base of a bamboo steamer and place the buns in the steamer. Fill a wok or pan with boiling water to a depth that will not immerse the base of the steamer and steam for about 7 minutes until the buns are opaque white. Test by inserting a toothpick into the center of a bun – if it comes out clean and not doughy, as well as hot, you know it is ready.

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