Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Vietnamese Food that isn't Pho - A recipe for Bánh Bao

Being a non-Caucasian in America, I often get asked what my ethnic background is.  When the question is phrased as something less vague than "Where are you from?" (which normally prompts me to respond, "Maryland," because I now live in New Jersey and I am surrounded by the Jersey born-and-bred), I tell people that I am Vietnamese.  More than 90% of the time, the response I get is, "Oh my god, I love pho!"  The last word is always pronounced "foe."

I find it very weird.  Can you imagine if you told someone you have an Italian background the person replied, "Cool, I love spaghetti!"  It's strange.  There is so much more to my heritage and cultural background than phở, which, by the way, is pronounced "fuh-ah?"  Because Vietnamese is a tonal language, "phở" is pronounced like a question and as if the word had two syllables.

So instead of sharing a recipe for a Vietnamese noodle soup like bun bo hue or pho, today I want to share with you how to make Bánh Bao.  First, of course, I will tell you what it is.  Think of a stereotypical pork bun you get in Chinatown.  Now imagine that the doughy outside is fluffy and light and the inside has ground pork, eggs, and vegetables.  That is a bánh bao.

When I was growing up, this could serve as my breakfast, a snack food, or lunch.  The filling can be changed to be whatever you want, but the standard bánh bao has a piece of hard boiled egg, some ground meat, and normally lap xuong (also known as Chinese sausage, for all you non-Asians).  I love them.  They're nutritious and healthy, and once you make them, you can store them in the freezer for at least a month, steaming them in the microwave for about a minute whenever you want to eat one.

While writing this recipe, I was faced, yet again, with the problem of transcribing a Vietnamese family recipe into a recipe that others can follow.  On one hand, I was lucky that this recipe is one of the ones that my mother actually has written down, since most things she makes from memory.  On the other hand, the notes she had written read something like this, "half a bowl of milk, add to the flour until it feels right.  If it doesn't feel good, add more milk" and "1/4 bowl of sugar, if you like it sweeter (it tastes better like this)."  I had to ask my mother exactly what "one bowl" measures out to.  Thankfully, we made these together and I could get some measurements down for you.

The D. Family Bánh Bao recipe
makes about 20 bánh bao (14cm in diameter)

The Dough
907g (2 lbs) self-rising enriched flour (for us, this was an entire bag of Gold Metal brand)
300g granulated sugar
1½ cups of milk (we normally use skim, but it doesn't matter what you use)
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil

Stir the flour and sugar together in a large bowl.
Slowly add in 1 cup of milk and the oil.  Knead the dough together until it is smooth.  If it feels dry, add more milk.
Keep the dough on the drier side.  Roll out portions of it onto a floured board.  Using a bowl or "pattern" to guide you, cut out large circles, approximately 14cm in diameter.

The Filling
1 pound of pork loin (alternatively, you can use chicken breast)
3 cloves of garlic
Fish sauce or nuoc mam

Olive oil
½ large onion, diced
roughly 1 pound of Napa cabbage, julienned
2 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in water
5 water chestnuts (canned)
1 tbsp Oyster sauce, to taste
Maggi seasoning, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
about ½ cup of whole kernel sweet corn (canned), drained
8 ounces of frozen petit peas, defrosted and drained
Salt, to taste
6 hard boiled eggs

In a food processor, grind the raw pork loin and garlic cloves with a few dashes of fish sauce.  Set aside.

In a large pan, heat some olive oil.  Sauté the onions over medium-high heat.  When they are caramelized, add in the cabbage, mushrooms, and water chestnuts.  Stir thoroughly.  Add in oyster sauce, Maggi seasoning, and black pepper to taste.  Allow to cool.

Stir the sweet corn and petit peas with salt, to taste.  Add to the stir-fry cabbage mixture above.  Once cool, add the ground pork and stir to combine.

Cut the hard boiled eggs into fourths.

In the middle of the circle of dough, add a piece of egg.  Surround the egg with some of the filling above.  Fold the dough carefully around the filling, pressing to "seal" to the top.  Steam for 8-10 minutes with a steamer.

Note: if you don't want to steam these on cabbage leaves, place the uncooked banh bao onto a little square of clean white paper and steam it like that.  Don't worry, the paper doesn't fall apart, even if you keep the banh bao on it, freeze it, and reheat it later.

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