A few weeks ago, I moseyed over to my grandparents’ apartment in Chinatown to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. As with many Chinese holidays, the table was laden with steamed fish, roast duck, and other auspicious, delicious foods. Just about everything on the table was whipped up by their caregiver, a lovely lady from Hong Kong who happens to be a talented cook (I call her ayi, or “Auntie”). Despite the many delights on offer, the dish that captured my heart that day wasn’t fish or duck or pork, but a simple plate of leafy greens. The flavor was delicately sweet, yet umami-rich, and I couldn’t get enough.
Once she got over her amusement at my gushing over a plate of vegetables, my ayi informed me that they were 地瓜猫 (di gua mao, or sweet potato leaves) and offered to teach me her preparation. Turns out it’s incredibly simple, which has earned these greens a spot in my weeknight veggie rotation. Every time I make them, I feel nourished–by the leafy greens, of course (did I mention they’re super healthy?), but also by the warm and fuzzy feelings of that day.
- If the ends of the stems are tough and woody, trim them with a knife. I like how the greens look served whole, but if you’d like, you can slice the stems into pieces to make them easier to eat with chopsticks.
- Heat a wok over medium-high heat until a droplet of water evaporates immediately upon touching the surface. Swirl in the oil and add the minced garlic. Fry for a few seconds, then add the shrimp paste, fu ru, and chicken broth.
- Stir to combine the ingredients, then add the greens and stir-fry for a few minutes, until the leaves are just wilted and the stems are cooked through. Serve immediately.
- Where can I buy sweet potato leaves? Here in New York City, I buy the leaves from Lani’s Farm at the Union Square Greenmarket, which boasts an impressive range of fresh, seasonal Asian vegetables. Outside of NYC, they can be found (along with all the other ingredients for this recipe!) at Asian supermarkets.
- Picking greens: If you can, pick greens with soft, bendy stems and large, unblemished leaves, which will fry up tender and sweet.
Whether you like your eggs soft, medium, or hard-boiled, this recipe will infuse them with the addictive flavor of oolong.
As a self-proclaimed tea nut, I have a love-hate relationship with tea eggs. Traditionally, the eggs are hard-boiled, gently cracked all over, and simmered in a broth of black tea, soy sauce, and spices, which produces a pretty marbled pattern. That long simmer infuses the eggs with wonderful flavor, but it also comes with a downside: hard, rubbery whites and crumbly, green-tinged yolks. Blech.
When I had first my ramen egg, it was a revelation. All that flavor, with a beautiful melty yolk! It was only a matter of time before I decided to apply the same treatment to tea eggs. By cold-steeping the eggs, you can cook them to your desired level of doneness. They’re great soft-boiled, of course, but if you’re looking to make tea egg salad (my initial inspiration for this dish), a medium or hard boil will do nicely. To maximize the flavor infusion, I skipped the traditional marbling, but I’ve included instructions for both options.
Another fun part of making tea eggs at home is that you can change up the tea and spices. I love the smooth flavor that Dong Ding oolong lends to this tea, but don’t hesitate to experiment a bit here. You can go with a classic black tea, or if you’re feeling adventurous, try a lapsang souchong for some smokiness. Follow your taste buds, and let me know what your favorite combinations are!
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups water
- 4 tbsp (60 mL) soy sauce
- 2 tbsp (15g) Oolong tea leaves (I used Taiwanese Dong Ding)
- 5 star anise
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
These fluffy steamed buns have two special tricks up their sleeve: ultra-savory lamb filling and crispy, pan-fried edges.
Growing up in a Cantonese family, we didn’t eat a lot of lamb. The few times I had it, it was tough, dry, and gamey, and I soon wrote it off entirely. I’m not sure when I realized how wrong I was, but it was probably around the same time I discovered cumin lamb. If I had to guess, I’d go with a Xinjiang restaurant in Beijing, where–more out of politeness to my host family than anything else–I gingerly tasted a roasted lamb skewer. Ever since then, cumin lamb has been way up there at the top of the Grace List of Legendary Flavor Combinations.
In China, lamb is often associated with the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to a number of Muslim ethnic minority groups known as Huizu. (Despite my family’s lack of appreciation for lamb, I am a quarter Hui!) Meanwhile, pan-fried buns (sheng jian bao, or 生煎包) were made famous in Shanghai, where they’re most often found stuffed with succulent pork. I learned that pan-frying technique from Phil’s mom, who’s known for making shockingly large batches of sheng jian bao every Thanksgiving and doling them out to lucky friends and family. I had an inkling that the same technique would be just as good, if not better, with cumin lamb.
Traditionally, Chinese buns are stuffed with a raw filling, which is cooked during the steaming process. For these buns, we amp up the flavor by browning the ground lamb in a pan with onions (gotta have that Maillard reaction), which offers the additional benefit of being able to adjust the seasoning to your taste. Next, we pan-fry the buns in the rendered fat from the lamb, turning them a delightful golden brown. Finally, we steam them until the bread turns soft and fluffy. I like to serve these right out of the pan, which helps keep the bottoms crisp. And if you’re like me, you’ll skip the chopsticks – bao are finger food.
- 1 tsp (3g) instant yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 2 tbsp (25g) granulated sugar
- 2.5 cups (300g) all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp (15g) cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp baking soda
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 lb (453g) ground lamb
- 3 tbsp ground cumin
- 1.5 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 scallions, diced
- 1 small bunch cilantro, minced
- Cast-iron or nonstick pan with a lid
- Stand mixer
- Rolling pin
4-6 (16 buns)
- Add the yeast to the warm water and allow to bloom for 5 minutes. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the ingredients using the paddle attachment. Once the yeast has bloomed (the water will look frothy), add the oil and yeast mixture and continue stirring with the paddle until combined.
- Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough, starting on the lowest speed and then increasing to speed 3 once the dough forms a ball. Knead for several minutes until the dough is smooth and shiny, but not sticky. When you press the dough lightly with a finger, it should leave a slight depression.
- Form the dough into a ball. Grease evenly with 1 tsp oil and return to the mixer bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof in a warm place for 30 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
- Preheat a cast-iron or nonstick pan over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, add the lamb, cumin, cornstarch, light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, chili powder, sugar, and salt and mix to combine.
- Once the pan is nice and hot, saute the diced onion in the sesame oil until golden.
- Add the lamb mixture to the pan and savor the resulting sizzle. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lamb is browned all over. Adjust seasoning to taste.
- Allow the filling to cool slightly, then scoop into a medium bowl. Reserve a small handful of scallions and cilantro to garnish the finished buns, then stir the rest into the filling. Leave the rendered lamb fat in the pan to fry the buns in later.
- Gently deflate the risen dough and knead a few times to remove air bubbles. Roll the dough into a log and cut into 16 pieces. Loosely cover the pieces with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
- Working one at a time, flatten a dough ball with your palm and use a small rolling pin to roll it into a 4” circle. The center of the circle should be slightly thicker than the edges, but there’s no need to sweat the details too much at this step.
- Place 1.5-2 tbsp of filling in the center of the dough and pleat the bun. The cooked filling won’t stick together nicely like raw filling does, so this will be a little messy! If you’re hopeless at pleating like me, you can use my easier, albeit less pretty, method of simply pulling the edges of the dough together to meet at the top. All that really matters is to avoid letting the filling touch the edges of your dough, as the grease will prevent the dough from sticking together.
- Cover the finished bun with plastic wrap and repeat until all the buns are pleated. Rest the buns for 15-20 minutes.
Unless you have an extremely large pan, you’ll have to cook multiple batches. My 10″ cast-iron skillet fit about half of the buns. If you have two pans, feel free to parallelize.
- If this is your first round of frying, return the pan with the lamb fat to medium heat. Otherwise, add 1 tbsp of oil to a clean pan. Space the buns an inch apart in the pan, as they’ll expand considerably once steamed. Allow the bottoms to fry for about a minute, until lightly golden.
- Sprinkle 1/4 cup of water around the pan, cover with a lid, and reduce the heat to low. Ensure there’s a little space for steam to escape and steam the buns for 5-10 minutes, until the water has evaporated entirely.
- Remove the lid and cook to your desired level of pan-fried goodness. Depending on the heat of your stove, they could be ready now, or they might need another minute or two. If you’re serving out of the pan, stop when they’re slightly lighter than you’d like, as they’ll continue cooking in the residual heat.
- Garnish with scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds, and serve immediately. I like these best dipped in a mix of Laoganma chili crisp and soy sauce, but I wouldn’t say no to a yogurt sauce either. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days and can be reheated the same way. Alternatively, see the Tips section for how to freeze them.
- Proofing: The ideal temperature for proofing yeast is 95°F. You can use the proof setting on your oven if you’re lucky enough to have a fancy oven, or preheat to the lowest temperature for 5 minutes and then turn off the oven. Alternatively, you can proof at room temperature for about an hour.
- Blooming the yeast: Technically, you don’t have to bloom instant yeast in warm water like you do active-dry, so it should be okay to skip this step. That said, the Minimalist Baker folks bloom theirs for better dispersion, and I’m certainly not going to argue with them!
- Freeze ’em: Pan-fried buns freeze surprisingly well. Space the fried buns out on a baking pan and place in the freezer for 20 minutes. At that point, you can transfer them to a Ziploc freezer bag without them sticking. To reheat, follow the same cooking process, but add 1/3 cup of water instead of 1/4 cup and steam for 8-12 minutes, until the filling is hot and the bottoms have re-crisped.
Tingly mala chili sauce, sesame paste, and soymilk lend surprising depth of flavor to this weeknight-friendly take on a Chinese classic.
For most of my life, I was a total wimp when it came to spice. Having grown up in a stereotypically Cantonese family, the closest thing to spice on our dinner table was white pepper. I distinctly remember going off to summer camp, taking a bite of Korean instant ramyeon, and devolving into fiery tears, much to my campmates’ amusement.
Few spicy dishes are more beloved than dan dan mian (担担面), a Sichuanese street food composed of springy noodles laced with Sichuan peppercorns, ground pork, and pickled vegetables. As you can imagine, until I embarked on spice training, I avoided Sichuanese food like the plague. But when I discovered tan tan men, the Japanese adaptation of the dish, I fell in love. That first bowl was super-savory, with rich, sesame-infused broth and only a hint of spice. Yes, please.
My love for classic tan tan men hasn’t changed, but these days, I can’t get enough of mala (麻辣), the numbing spice characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine. As a result, my version of tan tan men falls somewhere in between the original and the offshoot: brothier than the classic dan dan mian, spicier than your average tan tan men, and creamier than either, thanks to a secret ingredient: soymilk. It might sound weird at first, but bear with me here. Soymilk is often used to add subtle sweetness and creaminess to hotpot dishes, bringing balance to what could otherwise become an overly salty and spicy meal. Give it a shot–if you’re anything like me, you’ll soon forget you ever doubted it!
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 2 tbsp scallions (white part only), finely chopped
- 1 tsp ginger, minced
- 1 tsp garlic, minced
- 8oz ground pork
- 1 tbsp spicy doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 6 cups torigara (Japanese chicken) stock
- 2-4 tbsp Laoganma (老干妈) fried chili in oil, to taste
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 cup unsweetened soymilk
- 6 tbsp roasted white sesame paste
Toppings (mix & match as you please)
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp white sesame seeds
- 4 ramen eggs, halved
- 8oz chashu pork, thinly sliced
- Baby spinach
- Pickled vegetables
Tan Tan Men
- What’s torigara?: Torigara is a simple Japanese chicken stock devoid of the additional flavorings found in Western chicken stocks. I usually go the lazy route and use bottled torigara base, but if you have spare time and chicken bones, you can certainly make your own. And if you can’t find torigara, go ahead and use whatever chicken stock you have on hand–the spirit of the recipe will be the same.
This cucumber salad blends together common Chinese flavors into a delicious and refreshing side.
This refreshing Sichuanese dish balances richer, heavier courses and provides great textural contrast to otherwise texturally-dull dishes, making it one of my favorite appetizers.
Given how easy it is to prepare, ordering cucumber salad at restaurants can sometimes feels like highway robbery. I often find myself fighting my deeply-ingrained “get your money’s worth” attitude when I see the prices that some restaurants charge for this dish. At home, I have no such reservations. Whether you prefer a light slick of dressing or a complete drenching, the simplicity of the preparation lets you tweak the flavors to your taste at a low cost.
Regardless of your particular palate, the staples of a decently stocked Chinese kitchen–soy sauce, sesame oil, and black vinegar–come together with the garlic and sugar to make a surprisingly nuanced and unsurprisingly delicious vinaigrette for the cool, crisp smashed cucumbers.
- 1 English or 2-3 Persian cucumbers
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 1 1/2 tbsp Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tbsp Chinese black vinegar, such as Chinkiang
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp chili flakes (optional)
- 1 tsp toasted white sesame seeds (optional)
- Wash cucumbers and pat dry. Cut cucumber into manageable lengths for smashing (roughly 3-4 inches). Smash the cucumbers by placing them in a ziploc bag to contain the juices, then pressing into them with either a rolling pin or a large flat cleaver. Then, cut the smashed cucumber into bite-sized pieces.
- Toss the cucumber with salt and chill in the fridge for 10-15 minutes to draw out excess water.
- While the cucumber is resting, prepare the dressing. Heat up the sesame oil and fry the garlic until just lightly browned. Combine the fried sesame oil and garlic, soy sauce, and black vinegar to taste. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Play around with the ratios to get a flavor you enjoy; whether it’s lighter or more vinegary, there’s room to experiment.
- Toss the cucumber with the dressing until each piece is evenly coasted. Garnish with chili flakes and toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately or keep in the fridge for up to a day for stronger flavors.