Steamed, not baked: Steamed Buns (Shitake-Cabbage Bao 素菜包 and Pumpkin Paste Bao 南瓜包)

Veggie Bun 

Steamed shitake-cabbage buns


Aside from rice and noodles, steamed buns are a mainstay of Chinese cuisine. And various types exist. The simplest of steamed buns is the mantou (饅頭) – which I have always associated with northern Chinese cuisine. The mantou is a plain bun without filling. Built from similar ingredients, they are like a steamed version of the Western dinner roll. (Interestingly, “饅頭” in Japanese cuisine refers to filled buns.) Like the dinner roll, mantou is often an accompaniment to other dishes and sauces. I love dipping them in sweetened condensed milk.

When a mantou earns a filling, it transforms into a baozi (包), or simply, bao. The choice of filling here is literally endless, and the dough can differ in texture. Cantonese dimsum features many types of  bao with fluffy white dough: barbeque pork bao (叉燒包), lotus seed paste bao (莲蓉包), yellow custard bao (奶黃包) – the latter two being sweet and often dessert items. My favorite is the Shanghainese xiaolong bao (小籠包, literally “little steamer bun”) – small buns with a thin, smooth dough, with a meat-filling and also a savory broth inside. 

Anyway, I made some steamed bao‘s on the weekend. By definition, they would be a kind of 素菜包 (veggie bao, a popular type),  and what I am calling 南瓜包 (pumpkin paste bao, somewhat of my own creation).

Steamed buns should not be made in anything else but a 蒸籠, or bamboo steamer. Although not used much in day-to-day cooking, it is an indispensible utensil in the Chinese kitchen. Here was mine. This one is about a foot in diameter, and fits perfectly into your typical wok:

Bamboo Steamer

The bun dough was very simple: all purpose flour, yeast, salt, and water. I used whole wheat flour. Typically mantou’s and steamed buns are snowy white from white flour, but I thought it really shouldn’t be different with whole wheat. I threw together one filling from Taiwanese cabbage, shitake, and scallions (stuff I had in the fridge). This was tasty enough that I had myself a mini-salad on the side (it’s quality control). The other filling was made with mashed Kabocha squash (also known as Japanese pumpkin).

Unless you want round buns, bun-wrapping is an art, and prettiness comes with practice. I found it best to roll out the cut pieces of dough to slightly larger than my palm, with the edges much thinner than the middle. My first wraps had dough that was too thick and not rolled out quite as large as it should: 

Shitake Cabbage Filling Wrapping buns 

I tried wrapping and shaping the buns in several different ways just to experiment, and found that the rounded, seam-up and slightly opened configuration to be most pleasant. My steamer fits 12 small buns. (Here they are sitting on pieces of parchment. If actually served in the steamer, it would have been pretty to line the bottom with several large pieces cabbage leaves instead.) It is preferable to leave at least 1/2 inch in between them because they will expand after steaming:

Before after

After steaming, the whole kitchen was filled with the scent of … well, cooked shitake, veggies and buns. (Different from the smell of baked bread, more moistly aromatic.) I ate a bunch as soon as they were done, as steamed buns are best enjoyed hot. Personally, I liked how the whole wheat dough had more flavor and chewiness, and I also thought the darker color and those little specs of graininess made them look more interesting. It’s like how grainy breads look tastier than plain white bread. A closeup:

Steamed bun closeup

The cabbage-filled buns were flavorful, slightly juicy, and not overly salty. Which I liked. Sometimes I like to use Worchestershire sauce as a dip for bao‘s and dumplings. I tried this here and found added flavoring to be unecessary, but it wasn’t bad. The Kabocha-filled buns looked like moon cakes. I found them to be sweet and savoury at the same time. I love Kabocha, and I enjoy it simply steamed and without any added flavorings. But for some reason, I would haev liked the Kabocha buns to be just a tiny bit more salty.

These disappeared quickly, though I was able to sneak away a few and froze them for a rainy day. 🙂 


 Another cabbage bun               Steamed Kabocha Bun 

素菜包                                     南瓜包

Shitake-Cabbage Bao                    Pumpkin-paste Bao


Recipe follows…


Steamed Buns Recipe (makes 24 small)


1 large bamboo steamer

1 wok 

24 pieces of 2×2 inch parchment paper

1 rolling pin

Bun Dough

240g All Purpose Whole Wheat flour (Robin Hood)

1.5t Active dry yeast

1/2c-3/4c warm water

1t salt

Shitake-Cabbage Filling (enough for 18 buns)

1/2 head of Taiwanese cabbage (高麗菜), finely chopped

(you can use other types of cabbage you have, but Taiwanese cabbage has a much sweeter flavor)

2-3 shitake mushrooms, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 scallions, finely chopped

1T rice cooking wine

1-2T soy sauce

Kabocha Squash Filling (enough for 6 buns)

1c steamed or baked Kabocha squash, skinned and mashed

1T soy sauce


1. Activate dry yeast in warm water. Combine with flour, and knead for about 10 minutes.

2. Cover dough and let rise 2 hours to 2.5x original size.

3. In the mean time, prepare filling. Saute all the ingredients of the cabbage filling until the cabbage is cooked down and soft. To steam Kabocha, simply cut squash in half, remove seeds, and steam 20 minutes or until you can poke through it easily. Mash with a fork and combine with soy sauce.

4. When the dough is ready, punch it down, knead briefly, and roll it into a 1 foot cylinder. Cut in half. Unless you have two steamers or a giant one that can fit 24 buns, wrap half in plastic and refrigerate until use. Cut other half into 12 equal pieces.

5. On a floured surface, flatten each piece of dough with a floured rolling pin, to a size slightly larger than your palm, with thin edges. Put the flattened piece of the dough in your palm and spoon about a heeping tablespoon of filling in the middle. Close the dough and place seam side up (or down for round buns) on the cut parchment squares. Place in steamer.

6. Preheat a wok with water in it. When the water starts boiling, place steamer in wok and cover. Cook buns for 18 minutes or until soft and puffy. Repeat with the other half of your refrigerated dough. (Take it out and let it warm a little first. I think the dough can also be saved for a day or two in the fridge.)

7. Enjoy the buns right away, with Worchestershire as a dip for the cabbage ones. Buns can also be frozen after they are cooled (on a wire rack or in the steamer). Just put them in a ziploc bag with the parchment still on. Then whenever you want to have them, you can just pop them in the microwave. Handy!


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