What is mantou?
Mantou (or màntóu) is a small round Chinese steamed bread or bun that can be served in place of rice or noodles but also to accompany a meal, breakfast or afternoon snack.
Whether sweet or sour, spicy or pungent, fruity or sugary, Chinese cuisine is one of the richest cuisines of Asia, if not the world. Before telling you about the mantou buns, I wanted to tell you about Chinese dietetics.
First and foremost, you should know that according to the Chinese, a balanced diet is based on a classification. Foods are classified according to 5 flavors, 5 colors, 5 consistencies.
If, for Westerners, the four primary tastes are sour, salty, sweet and bitter, the Chinese add spicy as a fifth flavor. Like the Japanese and their fifth taste, umami, which I told you about when I prepared my miso soup.
Each of these flavors are not only connected to a color or a texture, but also to a season, to an organ or anatomical region, and to a mood. According to Chinese dietitians, they all provide benefits to the body and help with balance, provided you do not abuse of or overlook any of them.
Definitely a Chinese puzzle to me! But what is it about?
1 – Acid flavor
Lemon, apricot, orange, tangerine, pineapple, plum, grapefruit, vinegar, sorrel, tomatoes, sauerkraut, meat, champagne, dairy products.
Spring is the season.
Liver (and gallbladder) is its organ.
Anger is its mood.
2 – Bitter flavor
Coffee, tea, tobacco, cocoa, mutton, lamb, alcohol, turmeric, oregano, basil, sage, shallots, lamb’s lettuce, bell peppers, endive, dandelion, asparagus, chicory, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, arugula, nettles, quinoa, rye, amaranth.
Summer is its season.
Heart is its organ.
Joy is its mood.
3 – Sweet flavor
Cane sugar, most grains and legumes such as rice, corn, millet, beans or chickpeas. Also many fruits (dates, grapes, pear, watermelon) and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, peas, zucchini or kohlrabi and mushrooms. And finally tilia and peanut oil.
Indian summer is its season.
Spleen, pancreas and stomach, are its organs.
Reflection, nostalgia and obsession are its moods.
4 – Pungent/Spicy flavor
Turnip, onion, garlic, leek, spring onion, horseradish, mint, thyme, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, but also barley, oats, and mustard. There are “hot” spicy flavors such as pepper or ginger, and “cold” spicy flavors such as radishes or turnips.
Autumn is its season.
Lungs and colon are its organs.
Sadness is its mood.
5 – Salty flavor
Obviously salt but also seaweed, miso, tamarind, shoyu (soy sauce), seafood, certain fish, sheep milk cheese, Parmesan cheese, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, peas, dry beans, fava beans), pork, duck, buckwheat, nuts, olives and chestnuts.
Winter is its season.
Bladder and kidneys are its organs.
Fear and despair are its moods.
It is toward the sweet taste that I am heading today, to help your digestive system, to help you reflect and be nostalgic but no obsession here please!
The Chinese do not eat only rice and noodles. They also eat barbarians’ heads! Yes, mantou translates to… barbarian’s head!
What is the origin of mantou?
According to the legend, the first mantou were prepared nearly eighteen centuries ago under the rule of Zhuge Liang, a famous military strategist of the State of Shu, ancient kingdom of Sichuan in China during the Three Kingdoms period (the Shu, Wu and Wei from 220 to 280 AD). During an expedition to conquer the caves from the barbarians who were stealing from the state, Zhuge Liang who was leadinf a large army, arrived on the banks of the Lushui River.
It is said that the river was poisoned and dangerous, and that if a human ventured to cross it, he would perish unless the God of Rivers were given offerings, in particular mantou (the heads of captured barbarians). But as Zhuge Liang was a kind and sensitive man, he suggested to his soldiers to use heads made of dough rather than real ones. The soldiers had to stuff each ball of dough with pieces of pork, which gave them the appearance of a human head, which helped save many lives. Since then, this story lived on, and mantou are now very popular, particularly in the north of China.
In North China, mantou are often prepared at home and eaten with meals. In contrast, in South China, they are consumed at breakfast or as a snack. They are found everywhere, fresh and hot in the streets, at traveling bakers or in some supermarkets that prepare them on premise.
In northern China, mantou contains only flour, yeast, salt and water. In southern China however, mantou recipes often include milk and sugar. When they are stuffed with meat, they are called baozi.
The preparation of the dough is similar to the one of French baguette. Wheat flour is kneaded with water, salt and yeast. The only difference is that baking powder is incorporated into the mantou dough after the first rise.
After the rise, the dough is divided into small pieces of dough that are shaped before resting again and eventually being steamed to produce mantou.
The influence of Chinese cuisine is large, there are traces of these steamed buns but with different stuffings in the Philippines (puto) in Mongolia (manu), in Japan (manjū) and Vietnam (bánh bao) and always in individual servings. Such examples include mantou with red bean paste (dou sha bao) or pork buns (most popular filling for baozi).
Mantou is a bread that you should not share, as the Chinese say!
There is even a version of mantou that is deep-fried and served with condensed milk. It is called gold and silver mantou, and is a popular Chinese dessert.
It was the first time that I prepared and tasted steamed bread and I must admit that I was very happily surprised with this Chinese buns recipe!
- 4 cups flour
- 1½ tablespoon active dry yeast
- ⅔ cup warm water (to dissolve the yeast)
- ⅔ cup warm water (for the dough)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- Bamboo basket for steaming
The amount of water varies based on flour and climate of the country where you live. It is best to pour the water slowly.
Dissolve the yeast in ⅔ cup warm water. Let stand for 10 minutes.
Place the flour in the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the yeast mixture, then gradually add water while mixing.
Stir in salt and knead the dough for 10 minutes until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap.
Let the dough rest and rise in a warm, dry place, away from drafts, for 90 minutes, until it triples in volume.
Knead again, while slowly incorporating baking powder. Knead again for 8 minutes.
Cut dough into 12 equal pieces of dough and form balls. Place each ball on a piece of parchment paper and place in a bamboo basket.
Cover the loaves and let them rise again for 20 minutes.
Steam for 15 minutes.