Grim's Grub: I've got sssssteam heat!

A fluffy combination of sandwich and dinner roll you'll be sure to fall for.

bao 2.jpg
Steamed buns, known as baozi, are a delicious, fluffy food that works for every meal.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

I've said it before and I'll say it again: An army marches on its stomach, and almost nowhere is that as culturally apparent as in China.

Sure, the United States is rich with foods that came from World War II, but they fly under the radar. In China, a country with a literal holiday dedicated to delicious steamed dumplings, there are a surprising number of foods with histories tied to members of the military.

Baozi are steamed buns that can come stuffed with a variety of different fillings including pork, red bean paste, vegetable fillings and others.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Take the Three Kingdoms period of China during the third century. Following the defeat of a rebellion in the now Sichuan province, Chinese soldiers were returning on a long march home.

What happened next varies from version to version. One story says the troops were stymied by a raging river in their path, guarded by a deity that demanded the heads of 50 men in exchange for passage across. The story says strategist Zhuge Liang hatched a plan to make decoys from steamed bread and meat, designed to resemble human heads.

They were thrown into the river, and the deity was fooled. The buns were then named Mantou, a word for "barbarians' heads."


Another version says Liang and his soldiers were beset by plague on their return journey. With sickness rampant and morale waning, he had to find a solution. To appease both the sick men and any deity that might be wanting tribute, he had the same head-shaped steamed buns made. The troops' morale was lifted, and eventually they returned home.

Mantou eventually became renamed baozi, or bao buns. These fluffy steamed buns can have many varieties of fillings. One of the most popular fillings is pork, though a mixture of vegetables and mushrooms is also common.

There is a sort of dessert version filled with red bean paste, a popular sweet filling overseas.

Every region in China has its own version of bao, with each one arguing that theirs is best. Some restaurants deal only in bao. In some cases they are easily identified by the giant, barrel sized woks outside with stacks of bamboo steaming trays several feet tall.

Today, Shanghai in east China holds an annual Baozi Cultural Festival. Restaurants across the city serve their own version of fluffy bao buns. There is a variety that is full of ingredients that, while steaming, create their own soup-like broth.

These buns are famously dangerous to eat - if done incorrectly, such as failing to poke the bun or do something to vent the heat, the result is a face full of hot broth-like filling.

Read more of 'Grim's Grub'

Bao Bun Dough

Adapted from


  • 2 1/2 heaping cups flour (or 300 grams)
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon skim milk powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 cup (or 150 milliters) warm water
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons yeast

The recipe inventor says this can be made in a bread machine. It did not work in mine, though you can give it a try.
Combine the yeast and water in a mug and set it aside. You can also add just a bit of sugar to get a good start. Mix the remaining dry ingredients until evenly disbursed. Using your hands or a mixer with a dough hook, mix or fold the dry ingredients while gradually adding the oil and then the yeast/water mixture.

Once the dough holds together in a ball, begin kneading it on a lightly floured surface. If it sticks to your hands excessively, gradually add small dustings of flour. If the dough remains dry and refuses to come together completely, sprinkle with additional water.

This is a semi firm dough and will require kneading to form gluten. It is ready when it has a smooth, mostly dry, but elastic texture. Set this aside, covered with a moist cloth until it has doubled in size, about an hour. You can prepare your filling while it is rising.

Once you have a filling, divide the dough and filling into eight or 16 portions. Roll out each portion, attempting to leave it thicker at the bottom, until the dough is just shy of 1/4 inch thickness. Try to make the dough round.

Spoon in your chosen filling and pinch two opposite sides together, then turn the bun 90 degrees and repeat. You will have a square-ish packet. Pinch the corners in and give a gentle twist. Make sure all the folds are sticking together.

Allow the buns to rise once more for 15 minutes.

Using your chosen steamer, space the buns out so there is at least 1/2-3/4 inch of space all around. Steam for 15 minutes and allow the buns to rest for one minute.

Pork Filling


Adapted from

  • 2/3 pound ground pork
  • 3 large mushrooms (optional), chopped fine or minced
  • 1/4 of a medium onion, chopped fine
  • 1/8 ounce bamboo shoots, chopped finely (optional, can substitute cabbage)
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

Mix all the ingredients. You can separate it out into 8 or 16 sections to ensure you have enough to fill all of the buns.

Dipping Sauce

Makes 1 serving

  • 1 teaspoon fresh, minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon hot chili oil
  • 1/8 cup soy sauce
  • 1/8 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon chopped green onion (optional)

Combine the ingredients and mix them thoroughly to briefly emulsify the oil. It will separate fast, so be sure to stir between dipping the buns. Try the bun before you dunk it to see which way you prefer it, as this sauce can dominate the other flavors.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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