Chinese sourdough and other yeasted goods
I used to think that they didn’t use wild yeast (sourdough) in China, as I had never seen products made with it advertised anywhere. While I knew that little packets of dried yeast were not available for most of history, I assumed that wild yeast was something that China left behind with the Cultural Revolution, much like many other traditions, culinary and otherwise.
Much to my surprise, however, one day I came across a reference to 老面 lao mian (“old dough”) online. People were using this old dough or sourdough to make mantou (馒头) – a steamed bun that is China’s most commonly eaten bread. There were even commercial kitchens making sourdough mantou (老面馒头 laomian mantou), though I haven’t seen any in Beijing – perhaps they’re not publicly advertised as such?
Besides 老面 (laomian), sourdough can also be called 面肥 (mianfei, “dough fat”), or 面起子 (mian qizi, “dough-raiser”). Chinese bread-baking blogs also use 天然酵种 (tianran jiaozhong, “natural yeast”), but that seems to be solely used for wild yeast starters for baking bread. Yeast on its own is called 酵母 (jiaomu), with active dry yeast (活性干酵母 huoxing gan jiaomu) and instant yeast (高活性干酵母 gao huoxing gan jiaomu) being the most common varieties here.
Interestingly, however, while many people praise the superior flavor and texture of sourdough mantou, not many people enjoy the sour flavor. So food-grade alkali (食用面碱 shiyong mianjian) is always added as well, to neutralize the acid and give it a more “bread-like” flavor.
Yeasted foods in China
- Steamed buns 馒头 (mantou)
By far the most common bread product in northern China, mantou can also be found in many places in southern China as well. These buns have a fairly dry hydration dough (around 40-55%) and are not fermented for very long, hence their dense, tight crumb. An ideal mantou is white, chewy, and toothsome, but also soft. It has a thin skin that can be rather enjoyably peeled off.
Shandong’s qiangmian mantou (呛面馒头) are said to be some of the best – they are made by a unique method in which after each rise, new flour is kneaded into the dough. This process is called qiang mian and is repeated 3 or 4 times, making a hard, bouncy, chewy dough. Mantou can also be made with other grains and flours, such as purple rice, black rice, whole wheat, and multigrain.
- Huajuan’r 花卷
Many foreigners find mantou bland but have no problem loving their more dramatic cousins, “flower rolls.” Huajuan’r and mantou have a similar dough, but the huajuan’r is rolled out into a flat rectangle, brushed with oil, salt, and scallions, and then rolled up again and divided into buns again. Each bun is then twisted into the huajuan‘s signature ”flower” shape. You can think of it like a savory, twisted cinnamon roll. Other traditional fillings include salt and pepper (椒盐 jiaoyan) or sesame paste (麻酱 majiang).
Similarly, the big northern-style baozi (包子 steamed buns), red bean buns (豆沙包 dousha bao), and tangsanjiao (糖三角) are all made with a basic mantou-style dough. And like mantou, they’re all steamed as well. The tangsanjiao, or “sugar triangle,” is especially worth a longer explanation: these pillowy triangles oozing brown sugar in syrupy sticky rivulets with every bite are unfortunately now not as well-known as they deserve to be. They were treats in the austere ’80s of my childhood, when sweets were rare, but now with cakes, cookies, and the three-kuai McDonald’s ice cream cone, tangsanjiao have lost some of their allure. A nutritionist’s nightmare, but such a warm, nostalgic delight! I miss them.
- Shaobing 烧饼
Tasty baked sesame buns generally made with yeast or sourdough in Beijing and Tianjin. After the first rise, the dough is rolled out flat into a rectangle, and brushed with some sort of filling, then rolled up again and divided into individual buns. This creates an interior with multiple fine layers of dough. They’re usually brushed with oil and salt, sesame paste and salt and/or peppercorns, or sesame paste and brown sugar for a sweet variety (糖火烧 tanghuoshao). You can read more about it here.
- Fagao 发糕 (fagao)
These soft, spongy, steamed cakes are a wonderful treat for breakfast. They’re made with a combination of all-purpose flour and another flour, such as corn flour or rice flour (plain, purple, or black), and studded with dried raisins or jujubes (dates). Southern China-style or Cantonese style fagao are almost always made with rice flour. The dough is quite wet, and there’s almost no kneading – just some mixing to combine the ingredients. There’s only rise; after the batter doubles, the cake is steamed in a mold, bowl/plate, or paper cup. The resulting cake is moist, mildly sweet, airy, spongy, and wholesome.
- Famian bing (发面饼)
Most bing (griddle-cooked flatbraeads) are not leavened, making them thin and crisp, with the sole exception of these ”risen dough flatbreads.” As can be expected, famian bing are more substantial, about as thick as a hardback copy of The Great Gatsby, but fluffier and airier.
- Mo (馍)
Staples of Shaanxi cuisine, mo are usually seen sandwiching cuts of braised pork in a roujiamo (肉夹馍) or broken into bits and swimming in a lamb broth (羊肉泡馍 yangrou paomo). With a dry white crumb (no milk or grease in this dough!) and a hard shell, mo can be bland on their own. They are also be called baiji mo (白吉馍), after the area where they were supposedly invented.