Cathy Erway has written about Taiwanese cooking here on Serious Eats, and now she's the author of The Food of Taiwan, which will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 24th. Here, she shares one of her favorite recipes from the book.
I wasn't expecting much when I first bit into one of these buns. With its almost-vegetarian filling of slender green Chinese leeks, I assumed the round bundle couldn't possibly be as delicious as any of the options stuffed with juicy pork. But these buns have a secret inside: they're laced with chopped bits of dried baby shrimp, whose concentrated umami works a bit like tiny cubes of ham, permeating anything they're cooked with. Those shrimp, plus the golden-brown surface of the pan-fried bun, made me realize that this dish really doesn't need hunks of fatty meat to stand up to the best buns I tried in Taiwan.
I turned to my mom, who had joined me to schlep through the day markets of Taipei as part of the research for my book, The Food of Taiwan. She took one bite and turned to me with eyes wide, agreeing: "That's GOOD."
The silky green leeks combined with bean thread noodles makes for a particularly enjoyable texture, and the flavor is refreshing, especially if you've been eating pork-stuffed dumplings all day. Deep green Chinese leeks or chives offer a delicately garlicky note that's wonderful in dumplings and buns, but if you can't find them, thinly sliced leeks (which are a bit milder) can serve as a substitute.
This minced leek and dried baby shrimp filling can be used in any type of bun or dumpling, from pan-fried crispy guo tie (Taiwan's brand of potstickers) to puffy steamed mantou. The version that caught me by surprise was something of a combination of the two. Commonly called shui jian bao (which literally translates to "water-cooked bun"), this dumpling is pan-fried on a hot, oil slicked wok for a while first, then water is added and the whole pan is covered to allow the rest of the bun to cook through.
There are a couple of ways to approach the dough for shui jian bao. Typically, one would use a yeast-risen dough like you'd find in northern Chinese cuisine. I opted for a simpler yeast-free dough that's essentially the same thing as flat dumpling dough. The round, enclosed pastry is much easier to fold and seal than most dumplings are—these moves are easy to master. This is a great first recipe for folks who haven't yet tried their hand at homemade dumplings.