Simultaneously being both the lightest, most delicate, cloud-like bun imaginable and the richest, sweetest, most succulent pork belly possible, kakuni manjū are perhaps the ultimate variation on a bacon sandwich and frankly, I can’t think of a better combination of meat and bread that I’ve ever eaten.
Like the sweet, soy braised pork that fills them, manjū– or hirata buns to give them their recently adopted American name- owe their heritage to Chinese steamed buns such as the snowy white stars of many a dim sum menu, char siu bao. During the two hundred and twenty year period of isolation, Japan closed off its borders to the outside world, and the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, which quickly became what is now the country’s oldest Chinatown. Workers and traders travelling through the port took with them their favourite home comforts which were quickly adopted by local restaurants and yatai (food carts) before spreading across the country. Slow braised dongpo pork from Eastern China and pillowy mantou steamed bread from the North were two such dishes that arrived in this influx of unfamiliar cuisine, and were the culinary parents of this most delicious of sandwiches (perhaps with a little matchmaking courtesy of both Japan and China’s occupation of Taiwan and its now famous gua bao split steamed buns).
Breaking from tradition, we’ve added a few extras to our kakuni manjū- the creaminess of the mayonnaise and the crisp, refreshing bite of cucumber and shredded spring onions help to lift and round out the flavour of the bun. Eat them on their own with a few drinks, or as is now common practice, as an accompaniment to a deep, meaty bowl of ramen for the ultimate pork filled meal.
- 1/2 quantity of Buta no Kakuni, from our recipe here, sliced about half the thickness called for in the instructions
- 300g low gluten bao flour (Chinese flour used in making steamed buns, normally somewhere in the 6-8% gluten range and ultra bleached), or cake flour
- 180ml lukewarm water
- 30g caster sugar
- 3g fast action dried yeast (about half a regular sachet here in the UK)
- 5g baking powder
- pinch of salt
- vegetable oil for shaping
- 3 spring onions
- 2-3 inch piece of cucumber
- Japanese mayonnaise
- Mix together the flour, yeast, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl then slowly add in the water bit by bit- you might not need to add the full 180ml depending on the flour you are using. Stir the water into the dry ingredients until it forms a cohesive mass, then tip the dough mixture out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface and knead gently until you have a smooth but not sticky ball. The dough should be slightly springy and have a soft resistance when you push it with your fingers. Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover it with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave it to rise somewhere warm for an hour or until it has doubled in size.
- When the dough has proofed fully, tip it out onto an oiled surface and knead it slightly to knock out any oversized air bubbles, then divide it into six even pieces (ours were 84g each, but this number will vary depending on the amount of water you used).
- Lightly work each ball of dough in your hands to smooth out any tears or joins, then using a rolling pin, roll them out into long ovals approximately 18cm by 10cm. Ensure that the surface of each oval is well oiled, then fold them gently in half, resisting the temptation to apply any pressure. Place each folded manjū on an individual piece of greaseproof paper and allow them to rise for ten minutes while you prepare the pan for cooking them.
- Bring some water to the boil in a large saucepan with two or three bamboo steamers on top; you can use other types of steamer for cooking the buns, but hot bamboo always adds a distinctive aroma to anything steamed inside it. When the water has come to the boil, delicately place the manjū into their steamers and cook for 12 minutes- it may prove very difficult, but you must not peek in the steamers until the time is up, otherwise your buns could deflate rather sadly.
- While the buns are steaming, place the buta no kakuni pieces and their liquid into a shallow pan and gently heat them through allowing the sauce to thicken to a sticky glaze. Top and tail the spring onions then finely slice them into long strips, and cut the cucumber into 18 rounds- three per manjū.
- After the buns have cooked through and had their twelve minutes, take the lid off the steamer and enjoy the face full of sweet, woody steam (one of those feelings in cooking that we always look forward to). Using your fingers, tease apart the pocket in the manjū buns and add a squirt of mayonnaise right into the crease, followed by a sprig of the spring onions and a fat slice of the sticky glazed pork. Tuck three slices of cucumber between the lid of each sandwich and the pork, then rush to the table while they’re still piping hot and filling the room with their enticing aroma.
Serves 6 people as a side dish or a snack.