Being a world wanderer of sorts (I've lived in 4 countries and 20+ different homes since I was born), a lot of my eating and cooking is tinged with nostalgia and longing for things that I miss from places I've lived before. I've posted several such recipes here, such as for New York style bagels , homemade pizza , and chocolate peanut butter cups .
This is another such recipe, for Chinese-style steamed buns. I say Chinese-style, because the kind I yearn for is probably not very authentically Chinese like the ones Renee  can enjoy in such variety in Singapore. It's the Japanese version of the Chinese steamed bun, called chuuka manjuu. In Japan the chuuka manjuu usually has a smooth top because the dough is gathered and pressed together around the filling on the bottom. The fillings are usually an, sweet azuki bean paste (this is called anman, or roast pork (char siu) mixed with vegetables (this is called nikuman). There are also bastardized versions such as curry and Italian style meat sauce. They are usually sold from special glass cases which keep the buns hot and steamy, at combini (convenience stores) and such.
The sweet bean paste filled ones usually have a little red dot on top. Now, red bean paste (an) is not one of my favorite things to eat, even though my sister Meg was a chef at the New York Toraya for many years. (Toraya is arguably the leading purveyor of traditional Japanese sweet pastries.) Therefore, my favorite, nostalgia-inducing bun is the one with a roast pork or char siu filling.
On a side note, the best bao or pau I've ever had were from a tiny store on Pacific Avenue in San Francisco, on the edge of Chinatown. (I wish I could remember the name...). It has pictures of $4 and $5 platters of meat and veg on rice in the dingy window, and a big steamer up front containing the whitest, fluffiest bao I've ever had. My version is not nearly as perfect, but it is pretty damn good.
Bao or chuuka manjuu do freeze well if you make a large batch. You can steam or nuke them one at a time (steaming is much better, but nuking is more convenient.) This recipe makes 24 buns, and I freeze most of them when I make a batch. A bun makes a great little snack.
Making char siu from scratch is sort of a bother, but I have given a recipe for a simplified version. It does take time to cook, but a ready-made lump of char siu (or yakibuta in Japanese) is very useful, and can also be cooked in quantity and frozen for later use.
Chuuka Manjuu, Japanese-style Chinese steamed buns
Cut up the parchment paper into 24 squares about 10 cm / 3 inches square.
Proof the yeast in a bowl or cup in the 1/4 cup of warm water with a pinch of sugar added, until foamy.
In a large bowl, put in 5 cups of the flour. Make a well in the center, and add the hot water and mix rapidly. (Hot water seems to bring out the sweetness in flour.) Add the sugar and yeast/water mixture, baking powder, warm milk, and the shortening or lard. Mix well. Add the rest of the flour little by little until you have a workable dough. Knead for a few minutes on a floured board until it's soft and pliable. (This dough is one of the easiest you'll ever encounter.)
Put into a large plastic zip bag and seal. Leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in bulk, or has filled up the bag until it looks ready to burst. (About 45 minutes).
Take out the dough and roll into one long sausage. Cut the dough into 24 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, and let rest for a bit.
To fill the buns, flatten each ball so that the middle is slightly thicker than the edges. Put about a tablespoon or so of filling in the middle. Gather up the edges and pinch them firmly together to seal, then turn the bun over and place on a square of parchment paper. Let the buns rise for 15-20 minutes before steaming.
Steam in a steamer for 20 minutes. Eat while piping hot. I like to dip mine just slightly in soy sauce mixed with mustard sauce (the kind made straight from dry mustard powder, like the little packets you get at a Chinese take away).
The pork filling:
Soak the shiitake mushrooms in warm water until soft. Cut off the hard stems and slice thinly.
Cube the pork, or chop it up finely.
Mix the flour and cornstarch with the water.
In a pan heat the sesame oil and toss in all the ingredients except the flour/cornstarch water. Sauté briefly, then add the flour/cornstarch water. Cook until it's a bit syrupy.
Let cool and use to fill the buns.
Yakibuta, or Japanese-style Chinese Roast Pork (char siu)
If you have a big piece of pork, cut it into about 500g (1 pound) pieces. Roughly chop the ginger - you can leave the skin on - and bash the garlic to crush a bit.
Put the pork pieces in a sturdy plastic bag. You may want to double-bag it. Put in the pork, ginger, star anise and garlic, and fill with enough soy sauce to cover the pork. Seal the bag well and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Turn the meat several times if you can so that the marinade penetrates evenly.
Preheat the oven to 140° C / 280° F. Empty out the contents of the bag into a baking dish. Add a bit of water so that the meat is sitting in about 1cm of liquid. Sprinkle the meat with sugar, and bake for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours, turning the meat every 20-30 minutes. If you want it even sweeter, sprinkle more sugar on the meat periodically. At the end, the liquid will be almost gone and syrupy, and you will have dark amber colored pieces of pork. Let cool and slice thin, cube, etc. You can use cubes in fried rice, or in the steamed buns of course, and any number of things. Sliced thin it makes a great salad. It's also a rather unusual tasting sandwich meat.
It is quite worthwhile to make this in some quantity, since the cooking takes so long, and to freeze in portions for later use.
For sweet bean paste to make anman, try my not-so-sweet tsubu-an or tsubushi-an recipe .
(Check out my Easter brunch bunny bao  too!)