Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chinese Steamed Pork Buns and a Snowy Walk through Dalian...

Today there was a damp, biting chill in the air when I left the gym; Colorado doesn't often feel damp, but I kind of enjoyed the chill since I had just worked out.  Arms yesterday.  Legs today.  Pain tomorrow.  The hope that Jamie will give me a long massage tonight.  Hint, hint!

The chill tonight reminded me of winters in China.  It was hard to escape the cold since we walked everywhere, to classes, to the bus stop, all over downtown. 

"Duoshao?" was a question I was asked by Chinese men more than once when walking around the city.  Duoshao means "how much?".  I myself asked the question often, of street vendors, where haggling over prices was expected, and really, is considered part of the fun.  Although I was never a very good haggler and didn't particularly enjoy the practice.

But they were asking how much for me.

Dalian is in northern China, and although a large city (over 6 million), you'll find few white foreigners, so my friends and I were somewhat of a novelty there.  Being so far north, it's very near Russia, and Chinese men sometimes mistook me for a Russian girl.  And the common perception was that the Russian girls living there were either modeling or prostituting themselves, or both.  Whether or not that perception was based on any truth, I don't really know.

"Wo shi laoshi," I would reply, politely. 

I am a teacher.

They would nod, just as politely, as if they hadn't just asked if they could purchase my services.  There was no embarrassment on their part, at least not that I could see.  Just the open curiosity I had become so familiar with.

St. Sophia's, Harbin, China (left); Ice-covered trees in Jilin, China (right)

I suppose after a while these things didn't bother me so much anymore.  I was accustomed to the culture.  I became used to having people want to touch my curly hair, stare intently at my green eyes, even tug on my eyelashes to see if they were real.  Personal space was a luxury, rarely experienced.  I became used to these things, although there were days I wanted to hide and be invisible.  Or at least be able to blend in a little.

My students were just as curious in the beginning, but since we saw each other every day, we were very comfortable with each other, and they became very protective of me.  I became extremely good friends with many of my students - after all, at the time, I was only 4 years older than some of them.

One winter evening, I had come from downtown back to the campus by bus, and was walking back from the bus stop to my apartment.  The students' dormitories were right next to the teacher apartment buildings.  It had begun snowing earlier that day and the snow was piling up quite a bit.  When I saw one of my students leaning out a window to call out to someone, I impulsively scooped up a handful of snow and launched a snowball at him.  Ever notice how one snowball causes a chain effect of many, many snowballs?  After a huge snowball fight between students and teachers lasting the rest of the evening we were all exhausted.

Jessica and I in Jilin, China (top); Rocky Mountains, Colorado (bottom)
Rocky Mountains, Colorado (top); Heather in Harbin, China (bottom)

Winters in China were long and bitterly cold.  Dalian is a major harbor city, and the wide expanse of coastline brought a dry and biting wind off the salty sea, a wind that cut right through many layers of clothes, down to the long underwear I wore under my clothes.  The apartments were heated, but barely so.  Heat wasn't something we were able to control or regulate - it was turned on mid-November and turned off around March.  And during the winter months, it only cycled on (through radiators) for about an hour each morning and evening.  The buildings were extremely cold, to say the least, and I always slept with an electric space heater running.

One Christmas morning, I woke up to find an icicle protruding from my kitchen faucet!

Further north, closer to the Russian border, it was even colder; Harbin is famous for their beautiful ice festival every winter, and we traveled there twice to see it.  The second time, though, I couldn't help wondering if the ice sculptures were worth enduring those below-freezing temperatures again!  I remember wearing long underwear, jeans, plus another pair of pants on top of those, 3 or 4 pairs of socks, at least 7 shirts, coat, 2 pairs of gloves, scarf, hat...  and still being cold.

Lake McIntosh, Longmont, Colorado (left); St. Theresa's Cathedral of Changchun, Jilin, China (right)

On a typical Saturday, my friends and I would walk a quarter mile to the bus stop then ride the bus for 30-40 minutes until we reached downtown Dalian; once there, we'd spend hours walking around to all the shops and malls at Victory Square, zhongshan Square, Xinghai Square .  The walking helped to keep us warm.

If we got hungry, there were the street vendors selling a tempting array of snacks like fried bread, spicy meat on a stick, frozen fruit...  One of my favorite snacks, though, were the steamed buns.  Piping hot from their fresh steam bath, the soft, pillowy steamed dough was filled with a variety of meat and vegetables.  When you took a bite, the broth inside the bun would dribble down your hand, begging to be licked off it was so good.  I've never tasted steamed buns quite like those - they must have a well-kept secret.

For the first time I made these myself, in a bamboo steamer I recently bought at our Asian market in Denver, but so far have only used to steam tortillas for fish taco night.  The recipe came from my Asian cookbook, and the buns were really easy to make with a simple yeast dough and a pork and green pepper filling.  Mine turned out much bigger than I expected, so next time I'll either make them smaller or steam them immediately after shaping the buns, instead of letting them rise a second time.

I took the first bite, and told Jamie how it took me back, long before he and I ever met, to the bustling streets of Dalian, eating a steamed bun on a cold and windy winter day.

Chinese Steamed Pork Buns
printable recipe

  • 1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (scant) very warm water
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 cups bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 green pepper, seeds and ribs discarded, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Make the dough:
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the sugar, yeast and 1/2 cup of the warm water.  Let stand until foamy, 5-10 minutes.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.  Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers.

Add the flour mixture to the mixing bowl.  With the dough hook, stir the mixture on low, gradually adding the remainder of the water (no need to use all of it if you don't need to), until a soft dough forms.  Knead on medium low for 10 minutes.

Turn the dough out into an oiled bowl.  Cover with plastic and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Make the filling:
While the dough is rising, get your filling ready.  Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet, then add the green pepper, celery and green onions.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add the garlic and the pork, breaking up the meat.  Cook until the pork is beginning to brown.  Sprinkle with the cornstarch and sugar; add the soy sauce and the sesame oil.  Cook for several minutes until pork is browned and the mixture is slightly thickened.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Assembly and Steaming:
You will need some kind of steamer, large enough to hold all the buns, and kitchen twine.  I used a two-layer bamboo steamer, lined with parchment paper to keep the buns from sticking, set over a pot of boiling water.  Get the water simmering while you assemble the buns.

Punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured surface.  Divide into 8 equal pieces for larger buns (they do get much larger as they steam, though) or 16 pieces for smaller buns.  Roll each piece out into a circle of dough about 5-6 inches in diameter.  Spoon some of the filling into the center of each piece of dough.  (I did this in steps, first rolling out all the dough, then setting them all out, and dividing the filling equally, so that I didn't end up with too much or too little filling.)

Gather the dough up and tie loosely with a piece of kitchen twine.  Set the buns in the steamer, leaving a little room between each, as they will rise and puff during the steaming.  Steam for 30 minutes over steadily boiling water.  Serve buns immediately.

Yields 8 large or 16 medium buns.

Recipe adapted from Pork-Stuffed Steamed Buns, from The Chinese and Asian Kitchen Bible by Sallie Morris and Deh-Ta Hsiung.


  1. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading your experiences in Dalian! Man it sounds cold there! I honesty don't want to go anywhere where icicles form in the faucet. :) I can only imagine how comforting steam bums were in that cold. I love them anytime but especially in the winter and your recipe looks and sounds perfect! Love all of the pictures.

  2. I loved this post. Your stories of China are so interesting and your photo's beautiful. The steamed pork buns look delicious.

  3. Great post! Your photos are beautiful!! What a great experience you must have had in China. These steamed buns are one of my favorite Chinese delights :) I love them! YUM!

  4. Where to begin! The memories you have of China are definitely something to hold close to your heart; even those men wanting to buy your services. Your photos are stunning. I love that they give a glimpse of normal life over there, something I've never really seen.

    The buns are gorgeous and look delicious. I've never attempted them; even anything close.

  5. Your photos are gorgeous...as are the buns! I love steamed buns but have never tried to make them--I appreciate the instruction!

  6. These pictures are breathtaking!

  7. Lovely post! I loved reading about your experiences in China. I have seen a documentary about the ice festival. It looks incredible! I have walked miles for good steamed pork buns - but I won't have to any more. This is a great recipe!

  8. Did they taste pretty close to the real thing? There is a food street vendor in Chinatown who makes them and they take me back too! Delish!

  9. I cannot wait to try them. I envy you your time in China. Cherish it as I sure you do.


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