I want to tell you a story, so that you will understand why today’s topic holds such a special place in my heart.
There was a big, long period of my life during which I rarely wore skirts of my own free will. What ruined this tomboy streak for me was coming to Japan as an exchange student. My high school uniform, with its plain black blazer, pleated skirt and dark knee socks, was about as generic as they come – but being the nerd that I was, that didn’t matter to me. I was living the dream. I wore my schoolgirl pleats with pride.
And then it was winter. Now, Nagano is best known around the world for the fact that it hosted the winter Olympics in 1998. My high school was about twenty minutes away from the Olympic ski jump. I don’t have to tell you that it snowed a lot.
The dress code allowed for girls to wear pants instead of a skirt if they chose. When the snow started falling, the total number of pant-wearing girls at my high school increased… from two, to four. My classmates staggered into the entryway every morning, teeth chattering, their short skirts exposing dripping legs the color of steamed lobsters. I was filled with a mixture of scorn and awe, and my own winter uniform vacillated to reflect the victory of one over the other.
On those days when I wore a skirt and had hours to kill before the bus took me home, I walked the frozen streets with a scarf wrapped high around my face. My legs went from uncomfortable, to painful, and finally numb. Just as I thought I couldn’t walk anymore, I would reach the curve in front of the station. There, on the other side of the frozen sidewalk, was a wooden stand. The windows glowed with warmth, and a merry column of steam issued from a jaunty stovepipe. A sign outside declared the nature of their wares: nikuman.
A Japanese adaptation of Chinese baozi, nikuman are steamed buns filled with seasoned pork. The nikuman at this particular stand were about five or six inches in diameter, a holy union of meat, spices and fluffy, moist bread that was just the right size to be cupped in two frigid hands. Standing in the light of that stand, watching the steam rise from that wax paper wrapped bun is a thought that still brings warmth into my heart.
Nikuman and other varieties of chukaman (Chinese steamed buns, most of which are Chinese only in name) are available at convenience stores around Japan (check out the Wikipedia page for an interesting list of fillings). They remain one of my favorite street foods. It never occurred to me that I might be able to make them myself until recently, when I noticed a book on the subject. Turns out they’re actually pretty easy, and extremely fun to make.
You’ll need some kind of a steamer. Traditionally the stacking type made from bamboo is used – but since I’m cheap and don’t own any kind of steamer, I used a metal sieve with foil in the bottom in a regular stockpot. Waxed paper would have worked better, but otherwise this was a fine solution.
The best thing about making your own chukaman is that you can fill them with anything you want. I made a kabocha squash filling (recipe below) for some of mine, and filled the rest with other foods I had in the house. Melted chocolate and banana made an awesome filling, as did some leftover stir fried vegetables. I also had a few small sausages that needed to be eaten, so I wrapped in the same dough with some mustard and steamed. Next time I’ll try vegetable curry.
Ready to impress your friends and relations? Here’s the recipe:
100 g kabocha squash
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon mirin
2 tablespoons soymilk
250 g flour
1 tablespoon dry yeast
120 ml lukewarm water
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Combine flour and dry yeast. Add lukewarm water, sugar and vegetable oil. Mix with the tips of your fingers until combined.
Knead in the bowl until all the bits of flour and dough are combined. Turn out onto a flat surface and knead thoroughly, until the surface of the dough is smooth and soft. Allow to rise, covered, in a warm place for about 30 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, prepare your fillings. Anything seasoned vegetables or meat could be used here. I made chocolate banana (melted chocolate and sliced banana) and kabocha squash. To make kabocha filling, cut raw kabocha into chunks and boil or steam until soft. Mash into a paste, adding butter if desired. Add soy sauce, honey, mirin and soy milk, and mix well. Set fillings aside until ready to use.
Turn the dough out again and flatten with your hands. Spread baking powder over the surface and fold the edges of the dough in to make a square, so that when you knead the baking powder doesn’t fall out. Knead again until smooth.
Roll the dough out with your hands into a snake, about 30 cm long. Cut into ten sections.
One section at a time, roll out the pieces. You will want to have the cut end facing up, or it will be difficult to roll into a circle. Use a rolling pin and roll out, leaving the center considerably thicker than the edges. Cover the rolled out pieces so that they don’t dry out.
Fill with whatever you want. Close the top by working around the edge in a circle, making small pinches to close the opening. Once you make it all the way around, gather the edges together in your fingers and close tightly.
Allow to rest for another 15 minutes before steaming.
Put buns in a steaming basket (bamboo or metal) lined with wax paper. Leave lots of room, as they may expand to up to twice their original size. Steam for about 30 minutes.