When I was a little girl in Japan, my mother would give me money every day to buy a snack on the way home from school. This makes sense when you realize that we lived two trains, a bus ride and an hour and a half from school. My classmates and I would all rush to the conveniently located corner candy shop and, while they would waste their money on chocolate covered cornflake cookies (much better than they sound), dried ramen noodles with spice powder (much worse than you can even imagine) and Bazooka bubblegum, I would most often head directly to the back of the store where the nikuman -- pork stuffed bun -- steamer case lived and buy myself one (or two if funds stretched that far.)
These buns are not those that some of you might know from dim sum lunches in your local Chinatown, filled with sticky, chewy, sweet char siu pork. Those are utterly delicious and one of my dim sum favorites but they are nikuman's glamorous cousin. Japanese steamed pork buns are savory and filled with a delectable, rustic recipe of ground pork and spices. In recent years, though the steamer cases remain ubiquitous in every mom and pop corner store in Japan, you can now buy additional flavors like pizza and curry. I remain a purist and only the original will do when making an in-store purchase.
At home, I give myself a bit more leeway to get creative and, today, since I have an eggplant calling my name in the hydrator, made a filling that is a take on the Szechuanese dish Yu Xiang Qie Zi.
This makes 2 buns. One is probably enough for one portion but I allocated both for my dinner, along with a salad. Hips be damned.
1 Tbsps cornstarch topped up with enough flour to make 1/2 cup total
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup of water (possibly a tablespoon more if, like me, you keep your flour in the freezer)
1/4 lb ground pork
1 cup diced eggplant -- you want smaller than bite-sized pieces so that you can eat the buns without making a mess when they have been cooked
1 tsp finely chopped scallion
1 tsp sake
1/4 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp Doubanjiang (broad bean) paste
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1 finely chopped clove garlic
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsps + 1tsp vegetable or olive oil
Make the filling first so that it has the chance to cool.
Preheat the oven to 425.
Toss the eggplant in two teaspoons of the oil and place in one layer on a parchment paper lined baking tray. Bake for 15 minutes, stirring to redistribute at the halfway mark. You could also steam the eggplant and cut two teaspoons of oil from the recipe, but I find that the baked version adds a better texture. It is also a step up from the original recipe which uses a fair amount of oil.
Remove the eggplant from the oven and set aside.
Add the remaining teaspoon of oil to a skillet, along with the scallion, ginger and garlic. Cook over medium heat for about thirty seconds, stirring often, until the aromatics are very fragrant.
Add the pork and cook until the pork is no longer pink, stirring often and breaking down the pork clumps that form. This should take about 3 minutes.
Add the eggplant to the pan and stir to combine. Stir in the sake, soy sauce, Doubanjiang paste and sesame oil and stir to combine. Cook for an additional minute or two, distributing the liquids through the pork and eggplant.
Set aside to cool while you make the dough.
Measure the dry ingredients into a bowl.
Add the liquids and, using your hand or a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, mix everything together until it forms a smooth and shiny ball. Cover with plastic film and let rest for an hour.
Once the dough has rested and the filling is made, divide the dough into two pieces.
Flatten each piece into a round with a rolling pin, leaving the very center of the round slightly thicker than the edges. This will be the bottom.
Place one flattened piece of dough in the palm of your hand, cupping it slightly, and fill it with half of the pork-eggplant mixture.
Pull the dough up around the filling, crimping and pleating the dough as you do.
As you fill each dough round, and pleat it shut, place it in a parchment or cabbage leaf lined steamer.
Once the "nikuman" are ready, place the steamer over a pan filled with boiling water. The water should not reach the bottom of the steamer.
Cover and turn the heat to medium. Steam for fifteen minutes, checking the water levels every five minutes and adding more as needed.
Turn off the heat and let sit for an additional five minutes before taking the cover off and serving, with soy sauce -- or a mixture of soy sauce and black vinegar on the side for dipping purposes.
Inspiration recipe for the dough, here.
Inspiration recipe for the filling, here.