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On Mantou & Mee Koo
Mantou dough is the most elemental and basic of breads in Chinese food culture - the word mantou describes a substantial steamed bun made from leavened wheat dough. It is commonly steamed and eaten plain or deep-fried and dunked in condensed milk.
The earliest documented appearance of mantou dates back to China’s Warring States Period (AD 220-280), where three kingdoms vied for control of ancient China. The legendary political strategist of the Shu Kingdom Zhuge Liang was returning from a campaign against a group of Southern ‘barbarians’ when he and his army faced a particularly turbulent river crossing.
According to local tradition, the only way to safely cross the river was to appease the river gods with tributes of decapitated barbarian heads. Unwilling to resort to human sacrifice, Zhuge ordered shape buns like human heads and throw them into the river as tribute. Soon, the waves calmed and the army crossed successfully. The steamed buns were later called mantou 蠻頭 (meaning ‘barbarian’s head’) and evolved to become 饅頭 as the buns gained popularity. Because of this origin story, mantou is a ritual food used in sacrificial offerings to this day.
In Singapore and Malaysia, there is a variation of mantou known as mee koo (面龟) in the Hokkien dialect. This is made with the same mantou dough, but a portion of it is kneaded with pink food colouring. This pink dough will be used to encase the white dough, forming an ultra-thin ‘skin’. Apart from the usual round shape, the mee koo can also be found in the shape of tortoises or peaches, both symbols of longevity to the Chinese.
Most customers will pre-order the mee koo for prayer purposes on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar new year, the Jade Emperor’s birthday (the ninth day of the lunar new year), hungry ghost festival, or the birthdays of elderly family members.
While pink mee koo are more common, yellow is also an auspicious colour, especially during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. It is believed that yellow mee koo will bring ong (luck) to the devotees.
Depending on the occassion, customers will request to have Chinese characters such as ‘heng’, ‘ong’, or ‘huat’ on the mee koo to symbolize luck and prosperity.
Mee koo can be enjoyed toasted and eaten with butter and kaya, with a cup of Hainanese kopi. It is also served with savoury dishes such as chicken curry. Leftovers can be sliced, dipped in egg and served French toast-style.
Chinese Steamed Buns (Mantou or Lotus Leaf)
Makes 40-50 lotus leaf buns or 30-40 mantous depending on size
510g plain flour
6g dry yeast
25g milk powder
3 tbs vegetable oil
4x4” squares of parchment
Mix flour, cornstarch, yeast, sugar, salt and milk powder in one bowl. Add water and oil and mix until the dough gathers into a ball. Knead until smooth on a floured surface, about 5 minutes. It should be a slightly tacky, soft dough. Cover and rest 15 minutes.
To make lotus buns, divide the dough into 25g pieces. Shape each into a ball. Rest 15 minutes. Flatten a dough ball and roll to form a 4” long oval. Place a greased chopstick across the middle of the oval and fold the oval over. Pull the chopstick out. Place on a parchment square.
To make mantous: Roll the dough out thinly, especially the end where you are going to start rolling, and roll it up tightly into a log. Roll the log out into a long rope. Cut off the sides and cut into individual pieces (2-3” depending on the thickness of your log). Place on parchment squares and flatten slightly.
To proof and steam: proof the mantous and buns in an oven, with a tray of hot but not boiling water, for 30 minutes or until doubled. Steam 3 minutes on high heat, followed by 10 minutes on medium heat. Use immediately or cool and freeze.
On a sidenote, I made hairy gourd with tanghoon and haebee recently! This is a dish that you’d find in many Singaporean Chinese households. It is also a classic cai fan dish. It is typically eaten with other dishes and steamed rice, but if you’re tired and don’t want to cook more than one dish, you can add more water and a few pieces of chicken and it becomes a one-pot noodle soup.
Hairy Gourd Tanghoon (大姨媽嫁女)
1 hairy gourd, about 900g
35g haebee (dried shrimp), soaked until softened
15g minced garlic
½ tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon chicken powder (optional)
¼ teaspoon white pepper
Salt to taste
Peel hairy gourd and cut into matchsticks. Drain the haebee, saving the soaking liquid. Fry the haebee in oil until fragrant. Add garlic and continue frying until the garlic is fragrant. It should not turn golden. Add hairy gourd, haebee soaking liquid, and enough water to cover the hairy gourd. Add soy sauce, chicken powder and white pepper. Season with salt to taste. Add the tanghoon and simmer until the hairy gourd is slightly translucent and tender.