Weeknight Cooking

Have a Steamed Bun, or Five, for Lunch

April 14, 2015

As a defiant response to sad desk lunches, the Food52 team works to keep our midday meals both interesting and pretty. Each week, we'll be sharing our happiest desk lunches—and we want to see yours, too.

Today: Satisfying, customizable, and easy to pack, steamed buns are the perfect answer to, "What's for lunch?"

Chinese Steamed Buns

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There's a reason that steamed pork buns are traditionally enjoyed for breakfast in China: With a slightly thicker dough than pan-fried dumplings, they are compact, quick to eat, and self-contained. In Beijing, the streets are lined with stalls with white-aproned women slinging bao (a traditional pork-filled dumpling) from bamboo steamers into flimsy plastic bags. Commuters grab them on the go, hop on their mopeds, and eat them one-handed on their way to work. The same logic can be applied to your office lunch. And while you may not be moped-ing through one of the most populous cities in the world during your lunch hour, the same qualities that make bao great for an on-the-go breakfast also make them perfect for a quick, satisfying lunch. 

More: Pan-fried dumplings are another great lunch option—for many of the same reasons.

If you live in a city with a Chinatown, you may already be aware of the merits of the lunchtime steamed dumpling. In Manhattan's Chinatown, there are several stores devoted to these fluffy gems. Many of them stray from the classic filling of pork and instead come stuffed with beef, pumpkin, chicken, or kimchi. But if you can't trot down to Canal Street for lunch, don't worry, both filled (baozi) and unfilled (mantou) steamed dumplings are simple to make, after which they can be frozen and reheated in the microwave at work for a hot lunch.

Here's how to make steamed dumplings your next lunch:

Your first option is to go with the basic, unfilled mantou dough, then customize it to your heart's content. To keep it relatively simple, roll out the dough and sprinkle it with a layer of scallions for hua juan, a doughier version of the popular scallion pancakeFor the filled baozi, make the mantou dough, then filled it with either a classic pork and vegetable filling or, for a vegetarian option, sautéed bok choytofu, shiitake mushrooms, or even fried noodles. Freeze them immediately after filling and steaming them to keep them fresh, then in the morning before work, put them straight from your freezer into a temperature-controlled lunchbox. When you're ready to eat them, warm them up, swaddled in a damp paper towel in the microwave, until the filling is just heated through. If your office happens to have a kitchen, pan-fry them for a fantastic crunch. If you're enjoying them as a midday snack, one dumpling should do, but bring a few more if they're your entire lunch.

Another style of steamed bun is a variation that opens like a small taco, made popular by the New York chain, Momofuku. Bring a few into work with some hoisin sauce, quick-pickled cucumbers, and slices of braised pork belly. Or, pack in wedges of fried tofu, leftover chicken, or fish. You can achieve the same effect by slicing a plain mantou in half and just sandwiching your fillings in the middle. Don't feel compelled to stick to traditional ingredients: Use the buns to switch up the texture of your PB&J or butter the filled buns, then fry them lightly for a quick snack.

Of course, we must never forget dessert. Add a few dollops of red bean or lotus paste to some prepared mantou dough and you'll be the envy of your office with an assortment of warm pockets of goodness—all of which you can eat one-handed.

Top photo by cynthia | two red bowls; bottom photo by James Ransom

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Jenny Xu

Written by: Jenny Xu

Dorm baker and connoisseur of digestive biscuits.


Joan April 15, 2015
Ohhh, I miss all Taiwanese food right now!
Amy F. April 15, 2015
Great article!!! I love it!! =D