The Vegan Experience: Two Steamed Bun Variations To Knock Your Socks Off
Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
I can already hear you. What's with all these fried-things-stuffed-in sandwiches you've been making?
I apologize. Truly I do. (Not really). There's a reasoning to all this fried sandwich madness, and it's this: they taste delicious. And not just the "hmm, that's pretty darn good" kind of delicious, but the "hot damn, when do I get my next sandwich and why isn't it already in my mouth?" kind of delicious. The first was a Vietnamese-style Fried Sweet Potato and Avocado Banh Mì, and last week we went all Mexican and stuff with my Fried Eggplant Pambazos. This week? We take it back to Asia, by way of hip New York restaurants.
Chinese-style steamed buns are not new by any stretch, but stuffing them with interesting, carefully-selected ingredients and turning them into little composed sandwiches suddenly became a thing about a decade ago when first Momofuku then shortly after everybody else started serving them as (overpriced) appetizers all over town. It's a great idea that I felt deserved a bit of vegan-ification (Momofuku is notoriously un-apologetic about its "we don't serve anything vegetarian" policy).
The first choice I had to make was what to serve as the main stuffing ingredient. I played around with a few different types of mushrooms, sweet potatoes, fried avocados, and a slew of other vegetable ingredients before settling on daikon simmered Japanese-style in a sweet soy mixture, along with shiitakes and king oyster mushrooms similarly cooked. The sweet and savory sauce penetrates them beautifully, penetrating them with flavor through to the core.
The daikon retain a semi-crisp bite but dissolve effortlessly when you chew them, while the mushrooms take on a nice tender chew. I decided to pair the daikon and shiitake together in one bun (the tender crispness coupled with the chew was reminiscent of, dare I say, well-cooked pork belly?), and slice the king oyster mushroom for the other, dipping it in a quick tempura batter of flour, corn starch, and club soda before slipping it into the bun. Reducing the braising liquid into an intense syrup offered a quick jolt of flavor to both sandwiches.
For condiments, I tried to mix up flavors and textures to offer things that both complement and contrast with the fillings. Scallions and cilantro I love, so both versions got 'em. The daikon version needed some crispness, so I added a handful of quick-pickled mung beans. The pickles take about 10 minutes to make and add both crunch and bright acidity. A spicy mayonnaise made by blending hot sauce with vegan mayonnaise rounded out the flavors.
When I taste fried foods in a sandwich, my mind makes the inevitable leap to the McChicken sandwich, a taste memory from my youth that I've yet to shed. It's the shredded iceberg mixed with fried coating, mayonnaise, and sweetness from the bun that defines it for me. Shredded iceberg worked well, as did some mayonnaise, but the sweetness was lacking, and the sandwich didn't have quite the savoriness I was looking for.
The solution was to swap out the mayo for a sweet-and-savory version that I made with white miso as the main emulsifying ingredients, along with some agave nectar for sweetness, tofu for body, rice vinegar for acidity, and vegetable oil to emulsify it into a creamy, spreadable sauce. The stuff is delicious enough that Erin stole all the leftovers before anyone else could grab'em.
The resulting bun is possibly my favorite vegan recipe from the month so far. Possibly. It's been a pretty good month.
Erin put it best when she asked, "Why don't they serve these everywhere?!?"
Why not indeed, Erin.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.