My first week in Taipei was a nightmare. A typhoon was in full gale, I was a vegetarian and unprepared for the fact that Chinese do like to throw a teeny bit of meat in most everything, and I had been living on a diet of stir-fried cabbage and black mushrooms because that was all I could order in Chinese. Enter my friend from Brooklyn, Harvey, who somehow sniffed his way through the typhoon and the strange city to a tiny vegetarian restaurant. At the top of a long flight of stairs we sat down to a rickety table and I ate my first steamed buns. They were spicy, beautifully green inside, and aromatic of spinach, and I think they were like these.
Soak the noodles in warm or hot tap water to cover, until rubber-band firm, not mushy. (If you are planning to bake the buns, soak the noodles until fully soft and silken.) The temperature of the water required will vary with the noodles; try hotter water if they remain wire-like after 30 seconds. Drain, rinse, shake off excess water, and chop into small bits ¼ inch long.
Soak the mushrooms in cold or hot water to cover until fully soft and spongy, about 20 minutes to an hour. Snip off the stems with scissors, rinse the caps to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills, and squeeze gently to remove excess water.
Divide the spinach leaves from the stems, and cut the stems into 1-inch lengths. Pump the leaves and stems up and down in a large bowl of cold water to clean, then drain and repeat if necessary. Blanch in plain boiling water to cover for 1 minute, drain promptly, and rush under cold water until chilled. Squeeze the spinach firmly to remove all excess liquid, squeezing by the fistful wrapped in cheesecloth for best results.
Extract the gluten from the can, leaving behind the canning liquids and sediment. Blot the gluten with a paper towel if there is a lot of oil still clinging to the surface.
Add the mushrooms to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife and process until minced, scraping down as necessary. Add the gluten and process with on-off turns until pea-size. Chop the spinach roughly by hand, and distribute it around the steel knife. Sprinkle the seasonings on top, then process with several on-off turns to combine. Do not overprocess to a paste. Alternately, mince the mushrooms, gluten, and spinach by hand until fine, then combine with the seasonings.
Stir the chopped noodles into the gluten mixture. Taste, and adjust if required with a dash more soy or sesame oil. The filling should be spicy, and not wet.
The filling may be sealed airtight and refrigerated overnight. Be forewarned (or gladdened) that it grows spicier as it sits. If you are not working in advance, make the filling while the dough is rising. Stir before using to redistribute the seasonings.
Follow the. Steam the buns for 15–20 minutes, and mix the dipping sauce just before serving, putting an extra pinch of coriander on top of each sauce dish. Owing to the compactness of the filling you can use about 2½ tablespoons of filling per bun.
Do not be dismayed if the buns become stained upon steaming. It is just the curried gluten looking out at you from the inside.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.