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Breads: Chinese Style

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Winter Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(4) page(s): 14, 15, and 33

As Westerners know them, oven-baked breads are far from Chinese bread; and for that matter, so are sandwiches. This is not because the Chinese do not have leavened flour products, they do. Nor is it because they do not layer or stuff foods into bakery products, they do that, too. It is because both looks and tastes of Chinese breads are not relatives of those westerners think of when they say or think 'bread.'

The first leavened flour foods in China were steamed. These were called man tou; they became popular circa 300 CE. They were individual portion-size items, meat filed, and most often served in the spring. Steamed, fried, and baked dough products without filling became popular in and after the 19th century. About the same time, bread-types that westerners usually slice also became popular; but used differently.

The Chinese did have breads made from wheat, barley, glutinous and non-glutinous rices, sorghum, millet, soy beans, and more recently from corn; and the stuffed things in them. These early filled foods were wrapped with leavened dough that were able to rise due to molds such as Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus niger. These related simple single cells and others were early leavening helpers. There were others including yeasts and other single-cell plants in the Saccharomyces family including S.cervisiae; bacteria were also used including the Acetobacter or the Lactobacillus families. 'Fungal amylase" was another leavening agent used to rise or ferment the various grains, sprouted or not.

No matter the grain, all were made wet and mixed with one or more single-cell plants, animals, or fungi and then left to bubble and rise. These made what we might call starters. After this fermentation, additional flour or flours were added, the pastes shaped, many allowed to rise again, and finally heated to fix and cook the dough. Pastes made with more water and not stuffed or left to rise were intended as porridge. Most of these cereal foods were not sweetened as were the breads. The early Chinese breads were often sweetened and almost always stuffed. Many were mixed or topped with sesame seeds, peanuts, coconut, dried fruits, even eggs as a wash, or whole or half as a decorative topping. Historians believe that the Chinese learned about baked breads from outsiders. Iranians and Turkish people are credited as sources for this knowledge. A few say their knowledge may have come from others in the Middle East.

Rice and sorghum were indigenous to China, wheat and barley China's first imported staple foods. These and other flours were used as outer casings for meat, vegetable, and egg mixes. The wheats used were neither primitive varieties such as spelt, nor were they ones now used for pasta, such as durum wheat. They were soft and hard wheats, and when they first came to China, knowledge of how to grind them did not exist. That came about the same time as did the making of bread.

When ground, wheat, rice, barley, and many other flours did become popular, their earliest uses are said to be for dumpling wrappers and for noodles. Bread-making came later. Early on, the Chinese did learn to remove the gluten from the wheat grain to make imitation vegetarian meat substitutes for the Buddhist populations. Wheat was not the only item used to make into flour and then steamed, fried, or baked into bread. Ground mulberries were used as were dried ground bananas, other fruits, and many beans and pulses.

Breads, at times, were more than food; though that certainly was their primary use. As in other cultures, breads carried messages, particularly in time of war. Moon cakes carried military-type messages in the 14th century when the need for rebellion against Mongol rulers needed sharing. Nowadays, a small bread product that came to China from the United States, the fortune cookie, still carries messages.

Breads were used for food and they were food for the gods. Different kinds were used as offerings; and these were changed daily. Some were baked, others steamed, and still others were fried. A few were sweet and somewhat cake-like. For example, on the first day of each new moon, rolled fried cakes were proffered. Steamed rolls stuffed with mutton were a sixth day offering. Clover honey biscuits were temple offerings on the seventh day of a month, steamed sugar-biscuits were offered to the gods on the ninth day, and open-oven baked breads, now commonly called shao bing were offerings for the eleventh day. Other monthly bread-like offerings included biscuits with fillings, steamed short-breads, sugar cookie-breads leavened and unleavened, puff-pastry baked breads, fat-filled pastries, and many other bakery-type items.

Dumplings are a form of bread. They can be wrapped in leavened or unleavened wrappings. Nowadays, most use an unleavened wrapping, but there are many types of dumplings made with raised dough. Their fillings can be sweet or not. Dumplings are generally categorized by how the dough is made. Some are made with cold water, others with hot water, some include yeast or other leavening agents, and some are made with oil instead of water, or with both oil and water.

Dough that uses wheat flour with gluten is more commonly made with cold water or with oil. It has many uses and there are many cooking techniques for its products. Those that use cake or other flours are best baked or fried. Others with small amounts of gluten are steamed, baked, fried, or deep-fried. Hot-water dough makes for chewy products, as does high-gluten flour-dough products. And all flours with gluten, must rest after mixing to make for a better texture.

These and other baking/dough hints are but a fraction of things worth knowing about working with dough products such as bread. Try some of the following recipes. Doing them you can learn about and taste a minute fraction of Chinese breads, old and new. Visit Chinese bakeries and read Chinese cookbooks and magazines, this one included and this magazine’s online indexes at www.flavorandfortune.com to learn some of the myriad of types, fillings, and toppings that are in the Chinese bread larder.
Steamed Bread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 package dry yeast
1 Tablespoon melted lard
1 teaspoon solid shortening
parchment paper
1. Mix flour, salt, and sugar, and put it in a bowl leave the center hollowed out.
2. Mix one cup warm water with the yeast, and let set three minutes. Add the lard and pour this mixture into the hollow of the flour, mixing well until it forma a ball. Knead well until smooth and elastic. Then, transfer to a bowl previously spread with the solid shortening. Cover the bowl and let dough rise for one hour. Then punch it down and divide the dough into ten portions, rolling each into a ball. Cover these balls with a cloth and allow to rise another hour.
3. Shape each risen ball gently into a square, and put them on a small piece of parchment paper. Steam over boiling water for twenty minutes, then serve or stuff them as in the Stuffed Steamed bread recipe below.
Stuffed Steamed Bread
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon fermented red bean curd
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup coarsely minced barbecued or roast pork or duck
1 recipe steamed bread, above, not yet steamed
1. Mash sugar and fermented red bean curd, then add oil, and the barbecued pork or duck.
2. After the shaped bread squares have risen, take a chopstick and make a hole in each of them and stuff one-tenth of the red bean curd mixture into each of them. Pinch the dough closed.
3. Put filled dough on a small piece of parchment paper. Steam over boiling water for twenty minutes. Then serve.
Steamed Rolled Dumplings
4 sheets thin steamed rice flour pancakes, five by ten inches
8 large shrimp, minced into a paste
1 egg white
1/2 cup chopped or ground pork or beef
4 Tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon minced fresh coriander
1. Put a sheet of rice flour pancake on a dry surface.
2. Mix shrimp with egg white and spread one quarter of this on the pancake but do not put any on one of the short sides. Spread one-quarter of the meat mixture on top of the shrimp mixture. Drizzle one tablespoon of the oyster sauce on this, and using a small spatula, spread it over the meat. Then roll from one short end to the other and seal the open end with egg yolk. Place on an oiled steam-proof plate. Cut the roll in half. Repeat until all rolled dumplings are made.
3. Steam for ten minutes over rapidly boiling water.
4. Mix half cup of cold water with the cornstarch, and bring to the boil stirring, until thickened. Pour over the rolls. Sprinkle with fresh coriander, and serve.
Rice Bowl Bread
6 cups rice
3 cups rice flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 Tablespoon salt
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon thick soy jam
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
4 large black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, and minced
3 Tablespoons minced large white radish
2 Tablespoons dry-fried onions, commercially prepared
4 teaspoons hoisin or sa cha, or another fermented bean sauce
1. Cook rice in ten cups of water until very soft, about forty-five minutes, then add rice flour, sugar, salt, scallion, oil, soy sauce, soy jam, garlic, mushrooms, and white radish.
2. Oil eight rice bowls.
3. Put this soft paste into the eight rice bowls, and steam for half an hour. 4. Invert onto individual plates, and serve topped with some of the fried onions and one of the sauces. Then serve.
Pancake Packages
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 pound minced or ground pork
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
4 water chestnuts, minced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 egg yolk
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup peanut oil
1. Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Pour three-quaters of a cup of boiling water in the center, and stir with a chopstick until dough comes together. Remove and make into a ball and then knead until smooth.
2. Divide into ten to twenty parts, and roll each into a long cigar-shaped piece. Over with a cloth until meat is ready.
3. Heat vegetable oil and fry pork and ginger until meat is no longer pink. Remove from heat, drain the meat and then mix water chestnuts, sugar, rice wine, soy sauce, egg yolk, and cornstarch.
4. Take one piece of dough and roll into a coil. Brush it lightly with water, then spread one tent of the meat mixture evenly over it. Cover with another piece of dough rolled into a coil. Repeat until all dough and filling is used making ten pancake packages. Lightly press them together.
5. Heat half of the peanut oil and put five pancake packets in it. On low heat, fry the packets two to three minutes per side, until each side is golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels, and repeat with the rest of the oil, frying them until done. Serve them hot and whole or cut in half.
Steamed Spinach Bread
12 ounces fresh spinach, washed, their stems removed
2 Tablespoon melted lard
1/4 cup flour
3 eggs, beaten well
1/4 cup minced water chestnuts
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1. Team spinach for half minute, then squeeze out excess water, coarsely mince, and set it aside.
2. Mix melted lard with the flour, then add eggs, water chestnuts, salt, and sugar. When well-mixed, add in the spinach, and stir thoroughly.
3. Oil eight bowls or an eight-inch cake pan. Divide the spinach mixture evenly into the bowls or spread it evenly into the pan, and steam over rapidly boiling water for twenty minutes.
4. Remove from bowls or pan onto a plate, and serve.

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