November 18, 2012: Steamers – the ancient microwave

by valerielwang

Anyone familiar with Asian cooking knows the ubiquitous steamer basket. While also made in steel (as one sees at dim sum restaurants), the traditional model is a round bamboo basket with open slats at the bottom. These stack neatly over a pot with water for steaming – a wok works well – and are topped off with a tightly woven rattan lid. In a street market in Guangzhou, I saw steamer baskets 2 feet or more across, stacked up 12 layers, at a dim sum stall.

Steaming is used as an alternate cooking method for crescent-shaped shoumai dumplings (which can be fried as well), and as a method for bao – fluffy bread prepared plain or with egg, red bean, vegetable, or meat fillings (these can also be baked). My mother favored steaming whole, cleaned fish in wine – sliding slivers of scallion and ginger under slits in the skin.  When I was young I didn’t appreciate its subtle flavors, but now this exceptionally healthy, fast, and elegant preparation resonates.

But I digress.  Here was the problem: my hotel room in Xiamen offered a selection from the usual assortment of amenities for a slightly nice hotel in China, including a tea kettle but of course no microwave. I had leftover small bean buns from our visit to the Southern Shoalin. I hadn’t wanted to see them wasted after our wonderful vegetarian meal (I still dream of the millet fritters and the hot ginger soup with tapioca pearls). You may say, “Why not just eat the bao cold?” but being about 24 hours old, they’d become a little dry, and when possible, I enjoy a hot breakfast. So here’s the method I employed:

1) Impale a bun on a chopstick (always travel with a humble pair of bamboo chopsticks), so the bun is about halfway up the stick.
2) Put about an inch of water in the electric kettle.
3) Put the chopstick with the bun into the kettle, carefully ensuring the bun is well above water level. This ensures your bun does not become a sodden mess, while making a sticky lump in the kettle as well. The chopstick may extend out of the kettle – this is okay.
4) Turn on the kettle so the water boils and steams the bun. A few minutes should do it – don’t over-steam (sodden mess alert).
5) Take out the bun and enjoy. Mine was hot and fluffy – better than when reheated in a microwave. And my water was hot for coffee or tea.

There you have it – a free 2-Yuan breakfast in bed!
Note that you could do something similar at home if you were reheating a bun or two and didn’t want to get out the steamer basket (or don’t own one). But I don’t think this would work with frozen Bao.