Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Daring Cooks: Cha Sui Bao

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2011 hostess is Sara from Belly Rumbles! Sara chose awesome Char Sui Bao as our challenge, where we made the buns, Char Sui, and filling from scratch – delicious!

I'm very excited to share my first ever Daring Cooks challenge. For those of you who don't know/haven't heard of the Daring Kitchen, it's home to two groups - the Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers. Basically the idea is that one member sets a challenge each month for everyone else to follow - usually an interesting and possibly complex recipe that bloggers then work to recreate, posting about their progress on a given date. I've been lurking in the forums for months now, but for one reason or another have never been able to complete the given challenges (I was all set to do one of them, then got food poisoning, was unable to eat for a week and thus missed the deadline!) However, I finally got there and relished the opportunity to make Cha Sui Bao, or Chinese pork buns.

I first tried these on my Mum's birthday this year - we went for dim sum in Cambridge and I insisted we order these, as I'd always been intrigued and had never tried them. What arrived, nestled snugly in their bamboo steamer, wisps of steam gently curling around them, were glorious concoctions of meaty, flavoursome pork filling encased in a feather-light duvet of dough. The dough was pure white, with the incredible cloud-like texture of a marshmallow. It was slightly sweet, which went really well with the richness of the pork filling. I enjoyed these immensely, and announced to my family my intention to recreate them at some point.

Fortunate, then, that December's Daring Cooks challenge required just that.

To start with, I made the pork filling for the recipe. Sara suggested two different marinades for the pork; I opted for the first one, which used red food colouring to give an 'authentic' look. I put the pork (pork fillet or tenderloin) in a nice bath of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, honey, hoi sin, rice wine, sesame oil and five spice (among other ingredients) and left it to marinate for a day or so. 

Next, I cooked the pork for the filling. Sara suggested three methods: baking in the oven, searing in a pan then baking in the oven, or barbecuing. Given that barbecues in my house take about four hours and are strictly reserved for the height of summer, I opted for method number two. I pan-seared the pork, put it in the oven for 15 minutes, and was rewarded with beautifully moist meat with a gorgeous charred exterior. It was so delicious, I ended up eating half of it while dicing it for the next step (leftovers, incidentally, were excellent the next day stir-fried with some vegetables).

Next, I stir-fried the cubed pork with more soy sauce, hoi sin, spring onions, and some stock and cornflour to thicken the mixture. It was then ready to fill the buns. I did find the pork filling a little on the sweet side - if when I make these again, I think I'll use a little less hoi sin, which is extremely sweet.

I chose to make steamed buns, though Sara also provided a recipe for baked buns. I wanted that gorgeous squishy doughiness that steaming gives, that I remembered so well from my dim sum lunch. The recipe required me to make a basic dough, using milk instead of water, along with flour, a little oil, a little sugar and some salt. This was left to rise for a couple of hours.

Filling the buns was rather like making ravioli. I divided the risen dough into 20 portions, rolled each out into a little flat circle, then put a teaspoon of filling in the centre before pulling the dough up around the pork. They looked like miniature sacks of money or potatoes when I was finished. They then were left to rest for 20 minutes before I put them in a steamer to cook them. I don't have a bamboo steamer so I used an ordinary metal steamer, and it worked fine.

The result? Wonderful. The dough was soft and light, the filling meaty and rich with a hint of sweetness as well as the punch of garlic and ginger. I served these with a big bowl of stir-fried vegetables, and it was one of the most simple yet satisfying meals I've had lately. I just adore that combination of squidgy dough with a rich, dense filling - it's why I love ravioli so much. 

I think I'll have to make these again, and I'd really recommend trying them. They're not particularly difficult to make - if you marinate the pork and prepare the filling one evening, all you have to do the next day is make and fill the dough, which requires very little hands-on time (no faffing around rolling out dough through a machine, like with ravioli). 

I love how sweet and self-contained they are, gorgeous little parcels of meaty goodness. The filling especially is fabulous - if you don't get round to making buns, I'd really recommend the delicious marinade for the pork - you could just serve it sliced in a stir fry or with some rice and greens. It's quite sweet, but with plenty of tang from the garlic, ginger, soy and five-spice. My Mum remarked that it tasted "very authentic". As someone with more experience of eating Chinese food than myself, I take that as a compliment.

One thing, though - my dough did not achieve that white marshmallow-like texture that I remember from the restaurant. Any idea how they get that? Mine was more the colour of uncooked bread dough, and not quite as fluffy as the restaurant's pork buns (though it was still really light and lovely). If anyone has any insider knowledge I'd love to hear it!

For the challenge recipe, click here.

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  1. About the texture and the colour you have to use special bun flour that you can get in Asian stores, it is bleached and has very very low gluten about 7%. But I agree that using normal plain flour gives great result I thought the recipe was spot-on. Wonderful results. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  2. Gorgeous pictures! The filling looks so flavorful and moist.

    Also like you I haven't done a challenge in months but so glad I made sure I completed the last one of the year! :)

  3. I feel really privileged that the challenge I hosted was your first for the Daring Cooks! Your buns look awesome, and I am so glad you had fun with the challenge.

  4. Beautiful pictures. Congrats on completing your first challenge.

  5. Audax - amazing! Thanks so much, I'll try and get hold of that next time!

    Nish - me too, feels like a nice way to end the year :)

    Sara - thanks so much for the recipe! It was wonderful and can't wait to make it again.

    Brian - thanks!

  6. Georgeous pictures!

    This was my first time cooking along too - this was a fun challenge to start with!

  7. Wonderful job! Everything looks delicious! And congratulations on completing your first official Daring Cooks Challenge! Welcome!

  8. Welcome to the Daring Cooks, and wonderful job on your first challenge! That pork and those buns look SO delicious!

  9. Welcome to DC, and great job! Your bao look like little pagodas!

  10. Wow, congratulations on your first challenge! I joined the Daring Bakers a little while back but have spectacularly failed to complete any challenges due to various poor excuses.These buns look gorgeous and am very impressed with all the stages you went through to make them. Great post :-)

  11. These look really good! I grew up with these buns in Southeast Asia, but have never attempted to make them. The mental hurdle has always been too great...

  12. I read your name as Ellie McCustard and upon second glance was disappointed to find this was not so. Please change by deed poll promptly. Ta

  13. First timer here :)

    Gorgeous photos and drool-worthy cha sui! I grew up eating a boat-load of this delicious delicacy :)

    Happy Holidays!


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