My 1st Sheng Jian Bao Attempt: My Boyfriend Almost Cried

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Welcome to an excerpt from my Dumpling Diary, where I tell the tale of new recipe attempts, strange new creations, and dumplings I've inhaled recently. Click here to read more, or click here for more instructional content like recipes.

To me, one of the most awe-inspiring creations of culinary history is the almighty Sheng Jian Bao, a juicy pork-filled bun with a wrapper that’s fluffy on the inside, crispy on the bottom, and a sea of tasty hot broth a lurkin’.

These wonder bao are one of my favourites snacks of all time, and I religiously consume them any time I’m home in Vancouver (from the most wonderful shopping mall food court of all places)! To my chagrin, Germany is not exactly killin’ it on the bao front, so I tend to over-indulge anytime I have access.

But with plenty of time stuck in quarantine, and no foreseeable trip home in sight, I figured I would put on my big girl pants, channel the bao-ress of my ancestors (geddit? like prowess…?) and try to whip up my own batch from home… A delusional challenge really, given I’ve never made bao in my life…

But hey! Being stuck at home has given me plenty of unwarranted self-confidence and delirium, so I was ready for the challenge.

For my first attempt, I decided to use the Sheng Jian Bao recipe from Red House Spice here. It had great reviews, but I was a little skeptical about the lack of aspic (AKA jellified broth) which is what usually gives the Sheng Jian Bao (and Xiao Long Bao too) the hot soup filling inside. Still, after reading instructions on how to actually MAKE aspic, I was willing to omit it in the name of laziness. This girl was NOT planning on spending 8 hours babysitting meat jello…

So, recipe in hand (or I guess, in phone), I began my first adventure in making bao…

First, I whipped up the dough. I had recently procured yeast from a local kiosk, which was literally the highlight of my week since hoarding yeast has become the hottest new craze in Germany, next to telling your neighbours to be quiet. The process was simple enough, and I felt like a badass Asian grandma watching my ingredients become a lump as I whipped it with chopsticks. Soon enough, I had this weird sticky ball.

It seemed a little too sticky (spoiler: it was) but I let it rise in a little corner as I whipped up the filling.

After waiting way less time than I should have (I was impatient, and had read conflicting advice for how long bao dough should rise for), I tried to work my sticky hot mess of a dough. It had risen so yay, the kiosk yeast did its thing, but there was no way it was going to roll out properly.

The thing about yeasty dough (or just my yeasty dough, I guess) is it always turns out VERY elastic…. way too elastic for me to properly roll it out. With this fate on my hands yet again, I panicked and kept adding more flour, trying in vain to make the dough more workable. This didn’t work too well, but I soldiered on, and eventually I managed to make some semblance of bao disks with a combo of my rolling pin, fingers, and cursing under my breath.

And then came the pleating. I will not comment on the pleating besides the fact that it is NOT as easy as the food court women back home make it look.

But alas, after what felt like an hour on Struggle Street, I had assembled my very derpy line-up of bao, some of which looked like they ate the others in the womb. Size consistency was not my thing…. But I thought they looked okay for a first try:

The difficult part was over. Now all I had to do was fry my babies….. which is a sentence I hope to never say again.

I filled the pan with some hot sesame oil, and plopped the bao on with a tender mix of motherly care and maniacal starvation. Can I just say though, if you’re considering making Sheng Jian Bao, you should definitely make them, if only for the satisfying sizzle they make when their bottoms are browning. I wish I could walk down the aisle to that sweet, sweet symphony.

And then, with the precision of an old man working on his vintage ship in a bottle, I poured water into the pan and lidded it so my babies could steam. I was literally salivating so hard at this point, I needed to drink a glass of water to calm down.

Enjoy this pixellated screen cap from a video because I was too hungry to remember a photo:

With a final sprinkle of sesame seeds and green onion, I scooped my misshapen darlings onto a plate and brought them over to my hungry hungry hippo of a boyfriend who probably wondered why I just spent 4 hours lurking alone in the kitchen.

Honestly, I was like an overeager stage mom, hovering over him as he took his first crispy, doughy bite.

… and it could have been my imagination, or simply the delirium of toiling over wet dough for hours, but I swear I saw tears brimming up in that boy’s eyes. “Oooaoaauauhmggggghhh it’s SO GOOD”. High praise considering his usual emotionally reserved Britishness.

Not counting the scalding bao I feverishly shoved into my mouth over the stove, I then went in for my first bite.

Crispy. Yum. Fluffy. Yum. I did it????? Triple yum!

Despite its labour intensive process (I believe I called it a Labour of Labour as I threw the plate down on my boyfriend’s lap), I’d mark my first attempt as a success, with plenty of room for improvement which I’m sure I’ll hone through some (very tasty) trial and error.

What I Learned & Notes for Next Time

So what did my 1st attempt at Sheng Jian Bao teach me? Well…

  • The filling needs aspic. My 1st Sheng Jian Bao were tasty but I was really missing that soupy goodness inside. I thought they would be okay without it since making aspic sounded like a mission and a half (with scary ingredients I don’t know where to source), but alas, I was wrong. Good Sheng Jian Bao NEED SOUP INSIDE. I will underline this point over and over.
  • I’m very bad with dough. I knew this already, but wow am I honestly very very bad at dough. This process probably took double the time because of my insufficient dough skills. I will definitely watch a million tutorial videos next time so I can keep an eye on what the consistency should be. In hindsight, mine was much too sticky when I left it to rise.
  • My wrappers need more consistency. I was on the brink of rage quitting when it came time to actually cut my dough and roll the wrappers. I eyeballed everything and every derpy bao was its own unique half-assed size.. it all turned out fine in the end but I should definitely work on this next time.
  • Pleating is no joke. I thought I was a pleating master after making so many batches of regular potstickers but yikes, this was a whole new bao game (heh). At best, mine turned out looking like they had like, 6 pleats… at worst, all my pleats relaxed and the bao just looked like a weird sad golf ball reject. Definitely a skill to practice.
  • Lastly: my boyfriend will eat anything. A comforting fact when I beat myself up over the relative unevenness of my bao is this simple fact of food: the eater will not care. The eater is simply pleased to not starve. In fact, the eater will probably consume anything placed in front of them so long as it smells enough like food. SO, maybe less stressing next time?

Have you ever made Sheng Jian Bao?

I hope you enjoyed this diary entry recapping my first attempt… let me know in the comments if you’ve ever attempted these bad boys!

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