Located at the mouth of the Yellow River, Lijin in the Shandong Province, has long been a popular place of settlement for immigrants from all parts of the country.
Nestled near the coast of the Bohai Sea, many people moved there to either avoid famine or to take up new and exciting opportunities. As such, many place names in Lijin are strongly immigrant. The birthplace of Lijin Pan-Fried Pork Buns was known as the ‘salt shack town’ because salt harvesting was its main industry. The name has sad connotations because the townspeople were poor and could not afford to build proper houses and had to erect shacks to keep out the wind and frost.
The most influential wave of immigration occurred in the 1970s, with the development of the Shengli Oilfield, which attracted the need for a large number of workers and technicians and, of course, their families.
For a long time, the Yellow River Delta was a dualized society separated from one another. The oil fields had their own hospitals, buses, police, and even law courts, all of which operated differently from the local systems. The oilfield’s employees’ children were able to attend school, however, the locals had no qualifications at all. So most oil field children missed out on the native food and culture of the Yellow River Delta.
The only exception to this segregation was during the annual “exchange meeting.” Because the oil field was remote and had no decent shops, every year shop owners from surrounding towns would gather in one place and set up tents to sell their wares.
My husband relayed to me the thing he remembered most from visiting the Exchange Fair as a child was not the dazzling array of clothing and appliances, but the dark sides of the big pans with oily golden packages frying in them. The waft of burning wood mixed with the charming aroma of the frying food made a memorable impression on his young mind.
After several setbacks, my husband and I finally figured out how to make golden, double-sided and thin-skinned buns with juicy stuffing, just like authentic Lijin dumplings.
A special feature of Lijin Pan-Fried Pork Buns is that they are fried on both sides. The buns are first fried on one side, and flour water poured over the buns. Flour water helps the buns adhere to each other, making flipping easier. After a couple of minutes, the lid is placed on the pan, and the heat turned up to high, cooking until the liquid reduces to about a third. The buns are then turned over to continue cooking until the flour water has evaporated. At this point, oil (soybean or sesame) is added, and the buns continue cooking until they are crisp.
Some traditional Lijin Pan-Fried Pork Bun artistes still use an old woodfired stove, however, a small pan on a gas stove works just as well, and sometimes better.
Well, that’s enough introduction, let’s get back to it.
Firstly, we’ll get the stuffing ready.
The filling for Pan-Fried Pork Buns is meant to be dry, so the selection of pork is particularly important. Choose pork that has a decent layer of fat which will give the stuffing enough moisture without having to add any other liquid. Here we use pork belly.
The ingredients for the bun stuffing are as follows (makes 16 buns):
- 400 g pork belly, rind peeled off
- 25 ml sweet flour sauce
- 25 ml light soy sauce
- 25 ml dark soy sauce
- pinch of salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 100 g green onions
The pork belly will be easier to cut if you freeze it for a couple of hours first.
Cut off the rind/skin and dice into 5-7mm pieces.
Mix the sweet flour sauce with the soy sauces and pour into the diced pork. Mix well to combine.
Add the ginger, either grated or chopped finely. Then add the pepper (preferably fresh ground), sesame oil and salt, and mix well. Cover the bowl with cling film and put it in the refrigerator while you make the buns.
Wash the green onions, drain and set aside to chop a little later. The chopped green onion will react with the air and worsen its taste, so it’s better to cut it nearer the time when you use it.
Now we come to make the dough for the buns.
To make 16 buns, you will need the following ingredients:
- 250 g high gluten or bread flour. Our bun skin is on the thin side, so we must use higher strength gluten flour, or the buns will break easily during cooking.
- 125 ml warm water. Put the water in the microwave for 10-15 seconds until it feels warm to the touch. Warm water promotes yeast activity.
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder. Baking powder forms tiny sponge-like cavities in the dough and will make the buns softer. The main ingredients of baking powder are sodium bicarbonate and sodium pyrophosphate, making it quite safe to use.
- ½ teaspoon dry yeast
First, mix the baking powder with the flour.
Spread the flour on the pastry board and using a scraper, push the flour from the middle to the edges to form a space in the middle of about 25cm in diameter.
Pour the dry yeast into the center.
Add the warm water, and stir gently until the yeast fully dissolves.
Gently “wipe” the flour from the inner wall into the water with your hand until the yeast solution forms a thick batter.
Using the scraper, blend in the rest of the flour and bring it all together into a dough. Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes until it is even in texture, smooth and elastic.
Put the dough in a sealed container and allow it to relax for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, chop the green onions. Try to chop them as finely as you can, making it easier to package them in the buns, and so there are not big chunks of onion. Put the chopped onion aside in a bowl.
The relaxed dough is a little bigger than it was 20 minutes ago and is ready to roll out. You do not need to worry whether the dough has proved sufficiently at this stage. It will continue to ferment in the hot pan, and the heat will also cause the baking powder get to work expanding the buns making them nice and soft.
Form the dough into a log and cut it into 16 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball and cover with plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out as you work with the dough.
Roll each ball to a diameter of about 11 centimeters, thicker in the middle and slightly thinner around the edge.
First, put a teaspoon of chopped spring onion onto the dough disk.
Press the pork mixture onto the green onions with a small fork or teaspoon.
Pinch the edges up and around the stuffing to enclose it.
Cut off any excess dough to make the surface nice and flat.
Place the bun folded side down on the chopping board and shape it with your hands. Place each bun into an oiled container (bottom and sides) with space between them, so they do not stick together.
After the buns are all done, they can be fried in the pan (without waiting for the second fermentation). The most suitable pan for making Pan-Fried Pork Buns at home is a thick non-stick pan, which has even heat, and you do not have to worry about the buns sticking to the bottom. A 24 cm pan will fit 16 steamed buns perfectly. Never use a stainless steel pan to make these buns as they will most certainly stick.
Brush a layer of vegetable oil onto the bottom of the pan; soybean oil works best giving the buns a delicious fragrance and golden color. If you can’t get soybean oil, you can use fresh virgin olive oil, which is also a beautiful colour, but it will not produce an “Asian” fragrance.
Take the buns out of the container and place them on the chopping board. Reshape them a bit more – oil your hands first, so they don’t stick to you or each other.
Arrange the buns one by one in the pan, starting from the outer edge. A 24 cm pan will take two rounds, 11 buns around the outer edge and 5 in the middle. Heat the pan on the stove for 5 minutes.
Make the flour water by mixing 300 ml water with 20 g flour, and pour it over the buns so that the liquid comes 2/3 of the way up the side of the buns. Continue to boil the pan for 2 minutes and then cover for 5 minutes. While you are waiting, get yourself another larger non-stick pan (we used a 30 cm, but 26 or 28 works well) and brush the bottom with vegetable oil.
Carefully flip the buns from the 24cm pan into the larger one. The best way to do this is to cover the smaller pan with the larger one and flip, then remove the smaller pan from the top. This process requires a bit of strength if you are using heavy pans (two single-handled pans plus the weight of the buns). You might need to recruit a helper for this step and perform it over the sink to catch any drips.
If all goes well, the bottom of the buns should look like the picture below. Continue to heat the pan, and when the buns start sizzling, pour a small amount of flour water in to cover the bottom of the pan.
When the flour water has almost evaporated turn the heat to low and pour a small amount of vegetable oil into the crevices between the buns (preferably soybean oil, but if you cannot get it, you can use virgin olive oil).
Once the moisture from the flour water is all used up, and the buns are golden yellow on the bottom, they are ready.
Pan-Fried Pork Buns are best eaten hot, so dig in! Crispy outer and deliciously soft inside, these buns are to die for!