Peking duck Part 2 — steamed buns

I blushingly recall having promised to write this post the day after the previous one. Note to self: just say “later,” never “tomorrow” when talking up future posts. By way of explanation, let me just say that moving house is a little bit like being eaten up by a monster (kraken?) along with all of your belongings, digested, and pooped out the other end. In other words, the less said about the whole thing, the better (I am still being digested, in case you were wondering).

So if I can’t write about the mountains of boxes that I am surrounded by, I can at least make good on that promise and finish my Peking duck story.

As I mentioned earlier, there are those who like to wrap their duck in pancakes, and that is all well and good, but I prefer a steamed bun. There are lots of recipes out there, because this is a very versatile little carbohydrate. It is very similar to the outside of a bao, if you get my drift. That is to say, it is a bouncy yeasted dough that is steamed to create soft pillows that can be peeled open and stuffed with any number of things.

When I was living in China, I noticed that when people talked about “main dishes” they were actually talking about their carbohydrates. You could have rice as your main dish, but it was also equally possible to have noodles, congee, or steamed bread. Everything else that you eat — vegetables, meat, fish, or just something pungent like pork fat and chili peppers, is just to help the main dish down. (One of my new favorite meals is chili bean paste – fermented broad beans and chilis – and a bowl of rice. The bean paste is so potent that the rice goes down a treat with it. A fried egg on top is nice, but in a pinch I can do without.)

So think of these buns as vehicles for whatever tasty dish you fancy, like super soft pitas. I used a recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s amazing cookbook, Every Grain of Rice, which has my mother and me scrambling to try every recipe as fast as we can so we can move on to the next great recipe.

Lotus Leaf Buns  (so named for their shape, which resembles a folded lotus leaf)


you’ll need:

2 tsp dried yeast

500 grams white flour plus more for dusting

2 tbsp cooking oil plus more for greasing

2 tsp sugar

Add the yeast to 100 ml tepid water and set aside for five minutes to bloom. Make a well in the flour and pour in the dissolved yeast. Mix it in just enough to make a paste, then cover and let it sit for 20 minutes or so, or until it goes bubbly. add the oil and sugar, as well as about 225 ml of water — enough to give you a soft, kneadable dough…

…because it’s time to knead! Knead it until the dough is nice and smooth, around 10 minutes.  Put it in a bowl, cover, and let it rise for about 20 minutes.

Knock the dough back and turn it out on to the counter. Now, you’ll split it into around 32 little balls. You can do this more easily by quartering the dough and then getting 8 pieces off each quarter. The pieces should be 25  grams, and because I love my kitchen scale, I weighed them. Think what you will.

Now comes the fun part. Take a little dough ball and roll it out until it is about 8 cm across. Repeat until you have 32 discs. Then lightly brush one side of a disc with oil and fold it over. If you forget, the dough will fuse together and there will be no peeling open the bread for you. (Those are the ones that I eat first so no one can see them.)

Fold the dough over in half and then use a comb to press in the pattern of a lotus leaf into the dough. Then use the back of the comb to gently nudge the dough to make it curl inwards at each leaf vein. In the end, they will look like this:


Then let them rise another 20 minutes while you get your steamer ready. Steam the buns on high heat for 10 minutes. They will balloon! You can eat them right away, or cool them before refrigerating or freezing them. Just steam them to reheat.

If this all sounds a bit fiddly, I have to admit that it is. (But I just confessed to weighing each bun.) I did it twice in three days, though, and had fun. Plus, the buns were good, and I had some leftovers for snacking and for Baki’s lunch box.

If you are eating these buns with duck, here’s how we do it: first peel the bun open and go ahead and lay on a schmear of Hoisin sauce. Then add a slice of cucumber and a few slivers of green onion. Add your duck skin and your ready for blast off. Mmmmmm….

One of my relatives wrote to me after reading the first Peking duck post that he prefers a good Cantonese style roast duck. He’s got a point. It just so happens that I ran across a recipe for Cantonese roast duck in Gloria Bley Miller’s Thousand Chinese Recipes book while we were reading up on duck. My mother and I are very tempted to try it…


Peking duck part 1

Happy new year, everyone! I haven’t been able to read as many of the great new year/old year posts that everyone is writing lately, because we are moving this week. It’s all a bit sudden, and we have many, many books to pack, not to mention all the other stuff. This is when I realize that i really ought to acquire/keep fewer things.

My mom is still here (poor, long suffering mom), and she was trying to count how many times she has moved in her life. She gave up — it has been that many! (Consequently, she is a real pro. Oh thank you long suffering mom for helping me with this insane move!!) She moved plenty before she got married to my dad, and things just got more interesting after that. The first place they moved to, after meeting in Paris and getting married in Greece, was Nairobi. This was in 1969.

My parents’ landlord was the owner of a bookstore, and my mother said she got a lot of great books from there, many of which we still have and some of which we are packing up this week. One great favorite that she kept with her own collection (now in NYC) was a book called Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin. It is out of print under that title, but she bought a copy for me some years ago under its new name, The Art of Chinese Cuisine (same exact book inside). It is a fantastic book, written in a calm and conversational style that is a real pleasure to read. The book is so good, in fact, that the recipes are gravy. But they are very good recipes. And that is the book that my mother has always referred to when she is getting herself psyched up to make Peking duck.  Here is an irresistible little quote, in the lengthy introduction to the Peking duck recipe: “It is very difficult to think of a comparable dish in Western cooking. It most closely resembles a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in its distinctions between textures and delicate flavors.” I know. Just buy the book.

We made two in one week, and I have to say that it’s not so hard, it’s just that you can’t decide to do it on the spur of the moment. The reason for this is that the duck has to get really dry before you roast it so that the skin will be nice and crispy. To achieve this, you hang the duck for at least a day. We hung ours for two.  First we rubbed the inside of the body cavity with salt and hung it up for a day, then rubbed vodka all over it and hung it all day and that same evening we rubbed it with sugar water (2T sugar + 1T water) and let it hang another 24 hours before roasting it. This is more or less how the book describes it, although the process is shorter in the book. At the end of all that, we ended up with a sort of duck jerky:

dry duck

(To see what it looked like before, I refer you to the post previous to this one. You will notice that duck looks soft and flabby while this one is more wizened. You may also notice that the duck is hanging the wrong side down. This we corrected shortly after the photo was taken!)

Notice how my mom tied the wings to lift them up from the body? We did that on day two, when my mom noticed that the skin wasn’t drying much under the wings. Then you heat your oven to 375 F/180 C and place a tray with some water at the very bottom of the oven and the rack at the middle and roast the duck for about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half. We found that we needed to turn it once after an hour, then turn it again about 15 minutes later, so we did it for an hour and a half. And boy does it get brown:

roasted duck

I guess some people like their duck in pancakes, but we like it in steamed buns. I will post that recipe tomorrow and show you what the duck looked like when we ate it!

My parents left Nairobi in 1970, and my mother was terribly sad. She was sure she would never go back, and I suppose it was a perfectly reasonable expectation. But we moved there as a family when I was 8, and we stayed for six years which just goes to show that you can be sure of something and feel it in your bones, but that doesn’t mean it will turn out that way necessarily.

write it down


Well, the storage space us empty, as are the bookshelves on our old house (in fact, I took the shelves too). The movers were just about able to close the truck, and then they had to tie the bed on to the back of it.

I arrived in Antalya with the boys yesterday at noon, Baki with two teeth filled and a two minute egg-timer from his dentist in his pocket. The truck arrived last night, and now all of the stuff is in the flat, having been marched up a flight of stairs by three very determined movers. The flat is a maze of boxes, which threw me into a bit of a panic.

Thankfully, my mother was there and she was perfectly calm. She reminded me of how many times we have packed, moved, and unpacked (six big moves in my lifetime alone) and she assured me that there was hope. All I could see was total chaos. One room in the flat has been completely devoured by boxes. The photo above is one my mother took of Kaya in the mess this morning.

Still, moving is always full of little surprises. While I was gathering books that Ali and I had left behind, I came across some old papers of my dad’s — there were three files that he had written, assignments for work; and there was a sheaf of his poetry, a work in progress, with lots of corrections and scribbling on it. I stopped for a moment to read them and was immediately thrust directly into my father’s mind. His voice, not the physical one but the written one, was right there. I felt for a moment that my father, who is so resolutely gone from this world, had been momentarily revived.

Nothing can fill the deep chasm that is left when you realize that you will never, ever see someone or speak to them again, but to be able to hear them speak, even if it is not in dialogue with you, is a remarkable, potent thing. It reminded me of how precious a few written words can be. Forget reliquaries full of bits and pieces, the most powerful remains I can think of are words.

If you have something to say, for the sake of those you leave behind, write it down somewhere. Write it by hand in a notebook while no one is looking, type a blog post, send a letter. You can direct your words at everyone or no one.

Think of Sei Shonagon’s pillow book, completed in the 11th century in Japan. Here’s a little excerpt:

Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

Things That Should Be Large

Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.
Men’s eyes: when they are too narrow, they look feminine. On the other hand, if they were as large as metal bowls, I should find them rather frightening.
Round braziers. Winter cherries. Pine trees. The petals of yellow roses.
Horses as well as oxen should be large

Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.

(Translation Ivan Morris – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon – Penguin Classics)

I think it’s remarkable how much there is in those three short lists; I feel as if I know her.

Your words are a gift, why not be generous with them? The people who mourn you and miss you will be grateful. And the ones who like you now might, too.