Pastry cooking is definitely not a forte of mine. I struggle to adhere strictly to measurements and cooking times and not just play it by ear/sight/feel/smell. In my mind, kneading dough seems too fidgety and messy, and there are so many variables that could possibly go wrong. It genuinely is a thing of my nightmares.
To me, bao making is yet another step up in the “too hard” ranks from pastry cooking. It has always seemed a bit of a mystery, and it is something I had never even contemplated tackling before. HOW DO THEY EVEN MAKE THOSE DELICIOUSLY FLUFFY WHITE CLOUDS THAT TASTE OF RAINBOWS AND JOY AND MAGICALLY REPLENISH ON THE CARTS AT DIM SUM!!?!? After seeing so many failed attempts at creating them from competent foodie friends and on emotional journeys with contestants on reality television cooking shows, I had vowed to never, ever, attempt to make them.
It was while making a rather saucy and untraditional vegan Thai red curry with chickpeas, sweet potato, lentils and pumpkin (really, it was the delicious result of a mish-mash of leftover miscellaneous vegetables from the bottom of my fridge and the need to feed a vegetarian friend) that I remembered the slightly sweet pan-fried white bread-like rolls (mantou) that my mother used to make to accompany Malaysian curry. The bread was crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and could be used to mop up the last remaining drop of curry sauce on a plate. DELICIOUS. I had to go about recreating something similar (but slightly healthier) and after trawling through multiple recipes, I stumbled upon this simple little gem. I adapted it to my own tastes, adding a little sugar for sweetness, and a tiny bit more salt to bring out the flavour of the coconut. If there is one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I am a SALT FIEND, so make sure you play around with it to suit your own tastes.
To serve, I placed the curry and stack of baos in the centre of the table with a chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves thrown on top. You could throw on some coriander (my vegetarian friend has a severe dislike for it, what a silly), or even some freshly cut chillies instead. Go on, live on the edge. I dare you.
You could also substitute the vegetables in this curry for any meat or other vegetable, just be wary of cooking times. I do not advocate giving your guests salmonella.
Vegan Thai Red Curry
Makes: a buttload, but it really depends on the quantity of vegetables added
For the paste:
10 large dried red chillies (use less, or remove the seeds if you can’t take the heat)
2-4 fresh red birds eye chillies (as above)
2 stalks of lemongrass (white part only)
2 shallots, sliced finely
5-7 cloves of garlic, depending on size and strength
2cm piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced finely
3cm piece of fresh galangal, peeled and sliced finely
8 dried shrimp, available from your asian grocer (omit for vegan recipe)
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable (or other neutral) oil, for frying
For the curry:
1 brown onion, finely sliced
1 cup lentils, pre-cooked separately in water
1 can chickpeas
1 can coconut milk
1 large sweet potato, about 450g, cut into bite sized chunks
2 carrots, cut into chunks
10 kaffir lime leaves
2 pandan leaves, tied in a knot (in Australia, this is available from the frozen section of your Asian grocer)
1tbs palm sugar, grated or finely chopped
Fish sauce (omit for vegan recipe), to taste
Light soy sauce, to taste
1 cup water
salt and pepper, to taste
For the paste:
Soak dried chillies in warm water for 10 mins until soft, then use a mortar and pestle (or a food processor if you’re real lazy) to blend with the remaining ingredients until it forms a smooth paste. I usually substitute the 1/2 cup of water here for the water the chillies were soaking in for an extra kick!
Fry the paste off in vegetable oil for about 10 minutes or until the paste becomes fragrant. You can usually tell it’s ready at this stage as the oil and paste start to separate again.
You can store the paste (with the oil on top to seal it in) in the fridge for up to two weeks.
For the curry:
Begin by slowly frying off the onion until translucent with a small pinch of salt, then add in 2-3 tablespoons of curry paste, depending on heat tolerance.
Add in your hard vegetables (if you’re using meat, add it here and brown off), and combine with the onion and paste mix.
Once browned off, add in a cup of water, fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, tied pandan leaves, and kaffir lime leaves, and let simmer for 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender. In the last five minutes, add in chickpeas, lentils, and coconut milk and simmer until coconut milk is combined.
Vegan Coconut Bao
For this recipe, it really doesn’t matter what size can of coconut milk you use, as long as you keep the ratio of 1:2 coconut milk to self raising flour. I used a 400mL can, which yielded 15 large sized Baos.
Get your water boiling and ready to go while you’re making the dough – if your water isn’t boiling by the time you put your steamer on, the baos won’t rise and they’ll be quite dense. You won’t get to eat the fluffy white clouds you get when you go to dim sum. How unrucky for you.
1 can coconut milk
2 can-fuls of self raising flour
1 teaspoon of granulated sugar
a pinch of salt
30 muffin/cupcake liners, doubled up
Pour the can of coconut milk, the 2 can-fuls of self raising flour, salt, and sugar into a mixing bowl and fold until combined.
Knead the dough (it should be quite sticky at this stage) on a floured surface for another minute or so, until the dough is elastic, smooth, and no longer sticky.
Cut dough into 15 even sized pieces, then with floured hands roll into a rough ball shape before placing them in doubled cupcake liners.
Place tightly in a bamboo steamer over a pot/wok of boiling water and steam for 7-10 minutes or until risen and fluffy.
I might try experimenting further with this bao recipe, maybe even steaming things INSIDE of them. This could legitimately revolutionise the way I eat. I have a feeling i’ll end up being a crazy Asian lady who stuffs EVERYTHING into a bao. Mmmmmmmm, fluffy clouds of joy filled with even more joy – what could possibly go wrong?
I’m bao-ing out now, with a belly full of curry…