Shengjian bao, or steamed, then pan-fried buns filled with pork and vegetables, are one of the world’s perfect foods
Every once in awhile, the hubby and I have a conversation that goes a little something like this:
Me: … I mean, it wasn’t the best [insert Chinese food item here] I’ve ever had, but it was pretty good, objectively, and great, if you consider that we’re nowhere near [insert region of China or Taiwan here].
Him: What is [Chinese food item]? I’ve never had it.
Me (in absolute horror and shock): What do you mean, you’ve never had it? It’s only the best-known thing to eat in [region of China or Taiwan]!
Him: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was born and raised in the U.S., without a drop of Chinese blood in me. Maybe it’s because I grew up eating Americanized Chinese food. Maybe it’s because I led a deeply deprived childhood that only you can rescue me from. Help me help myself, dear Biscuitwheels, wife of mine.
Okay, so I made that last part up, but he might as well have said that. Even though we’ve been to quite a few places together over the past year, we still have so much eating to do together. The last time we had this conversation, it was in Hong Kong, it was over the shengjian bao, pictured above, and it was in front of my cousin, who is quite possibly the most selective eater in my family.
Delicately stir-fried river shrimp with just a touch of peas; I grew up eating a riff on this dish, never appreciating how simple and delicious it is
Note that when I say that my cousin is a selective eater, I don’t mean picky. One of my favorite stories about him is one that I have no personal recollection of, as I was either still a twinkle in my dad’s eye or just a wee baby. Back before the age of cell phones, the family took a two-car road trip down to Florida, with my cousin riding in the back of a station wagon and my dad in the front passenger seat of the car behind him. My cousin rode backwards, as safety features in station wagons must have also been questionable back then, so that my cousin was facing my dad in the next car. At lunchtime, my cousin made a sign that it was time to eat by gesturing towards my dad as if he were holding a bowl of rice in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. My dad gamely shook his head, holding up two clamshell hands facing each other, as if to signal he was holding a burger. This sent my cousin into an apoplectic fit, and he furiously shook his head and emphasized the bowl and chopsticks. My dad continued to egg him on, teasing him about eating burgers for lunch instead of Chinese food. To this day, that story sticks with me as one of the ways you can describe my cousin and his appetite for good food.
Stir-fried sigua (angle gourd), tomato, and the softest pressed bean curd I’ve ever had, the consistency of thick pasta
My cousin now lives in Hong Kong, which is probably only one of a handful of cities in the world that would pass his culinary snuff, and while we were there last month, he offered up Xiao Nan Guo Restaurant as a good place to get good “family” food. My dad’s family comes from Shanghai, China, and I grew up eating classic Shanghainese dishes at home.
That’s when the hubby and I had The Conversation. When my cousin suggested Xiao Nan Guo, I immediately went into “clappy hands” mode, excitedly asking my cousin if they served shengjian bao, which, of course, they did. It’s a classic Shanghainese food, and even though typically eaten for breakfast or lunch, I think it’s the perfect pocket food that can be eaten really any time. Shengjian bao are hearty little buns that are filled with pork and a little magical gelatinous goo that becomes soup when steamed. The buns are then pan-fried on the bottom until brown and crispy, the crusty bottom contains the soup, which then makes the buns portable. When I was in college in Atlanta, there was a place in the Chinatown food court that used to make the best shengjian bao, and I’d go there almost every weekend to load up on them. When I studied abroad in Shanghai in 1998, a little cart next to the university used to fry these little guys up every morning, and I easily took years off my life eating handfuls of those fried suckers. I’ve flown with 5 dozen of these bad boys in a cooler bag as my carry-on baggage from Seattle to Anchorage to greet my travel-weary cousins from Taiwan. Shengjian bao aren’t just a food I like to eat; I have a history with them.
Hong sao rou, or soy sauce-braised pork belly to be eaten sandwiched inside steamed bread
The hubby knows about my past with shengjian bao. He’s heard the story of me dutifully carting those 60 buns through airport security (hey, it’s less than 3.4 ounces of liquid per bun) and onwards to my family reunion in Alaska. He’s heard about how welcome those little buns were to my family members, who have now come to expect shengjian bao to greet them at the gate whenever they make the 20-plus hour trip to America (just imagine the disappointment of my younger cousin Linda, who upon arriving in America for a two-year Master’s degree program, was taken to Panera Bread for — gasp — a sandwich). He knows that I used to smuggle in shengjian bao into my classes in college, hoping that the vegetable oil-tinged smell of pork wouldn’t catch the notice of my classmates and professors. He fills in the gaps to my stories every time the phrase “shengjian bao” comes up, but, up until last month, he’d never eaten one. Perish the thought.
We remedied this oversight, of course, by visiting Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong. It’s a chain restaurant that originated in Shanghai, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s better that a chain restaurant specializing in Shanghainese food comes out of Shanghai than anywhere else. The shengjian bao were great — seared perfectly crispy on the bottom, bursting with hot soup with every bite, and garnished with the perfect amount of toasted sesame seeds and chopped scallions. The restaurant also did right by serving black vinegar for dipping, which you need for its acidity in order to cut the grease from the frying. Everything else was refined and delicious, too, from the stir-fried shrimp we had to a standout stir-fried angle gourd, tomato and pressed bean curd cut into the size and shape of thick tagliatelle. At the end of the meal, we had a braised soy pork belly with homemade steamed bread. I have a history with that dish, called hong sao rou, too.
Someday, I’ll tell it to you.