The concept of Hawaii as one of the 50 U.S. states, gives most Americans mixed emotions – we all know it’s just too nice for its own good! And we know that it’s the haunt of the ultra rich – there is no such thing as a budget vacation to Hawaii.
Hawaii is a different place, and we all know it.
But my travels have taught me how to get by in expensive resort-y areas – look for the parts of town where the housemaids, gardeners, and hotel staff hang out and shop – it’s always there, maybe not quite as cheap as back home, but a hell of a lot better than trying to survive at The Grand Hotel. I recall a conversation with my Doc about his recent vacation in Hawaii – he was complaining about how expensive it was to eat, and my response was as I have noted above – he looked at me with that sad, far away expression that said, ‘there’s a 101 reasons why I can’t do that, but we needn’t get into that.’
I love the food of the common man of Hawaii, for it shouts out about the culture and the history of a proud people. The common food of Hawaii is comfort food – where else on earth can you find on the menu of almost every lunch counter and food truck, ‘BBQ’ed Spam paired with Macaroni and Potato Salad’? Everywhere in the world where the finest foods have been priced out of reach of the poor, the poor have responded by taking the least costly ingredients and making something delicious out of it . Note that I didn’t say that they made something eatable out of it – these foods have evolved into things that went far beyond eatable; it was essential that they become even more desirable than those more expensive foods of the culture - and these foods have become the comfort food of the common man, everywhere in the world.
Today, we’re going to make one of those Hawaiian comfort foods, Manapua. In Hawaii, Manapua is not only comfort food, it is cheap comfort food. Manapua is a food borrowed from the Chinese, which is not hard to understand, given Hawaii’s rich tradition of Asian immigrants. In China, this food is known as Bao, but its translation into the Hawaiian culture actually has done little to change it -except in name- save for a few subtle ways. Still, over the years of my personal Bao eating experience, I have developed a sense of preference for the Hawaiian versions over the more familiar Chinese kinds.
Manapua is also usually steamed, and therefore joins the short list of the world’s steamed breads. You could bake it, if you wanted to, but then it’s just a roll stuffed with stuff – No, once you’ve sampled a steamed bao, you forget that it could be baked too. Steaming creates a soft fluffy chewiness that baking simply can’t – it’s just completely different.
I announced recently that one of my current adventure streams is ‘steaming’ various foods and dishes – and since this is also a bread, it fits my psyche perfectly. And since I’ve got in my fridge, the Char Siu that I recently made, we’ll make Char Siu Manapua.
Now, I’ve done these before, and frankly, they were terrific – but as I readied myself to share the preparation of Hawaiian Manapua with you, I wanted to make sure that the version I was sharing was ‘true’ its Hawaiian roots and tradition – and so I spent one entire day researching this on the web. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you just how much time one can invest in online research, and frankly, it gets quite tedious quickly. In this case, I kept coming across the very same recipe – I mean VERY SAME recipe, time, and time, and time again – not one jot or tittle out of place! I’ve come to realize that when confronted by all this sameness, rather than being proof of commonality or popularity, it is simply proof of something that has been ‘stolen’ so often that it is now ubiquitous. So instead, I concentrated on searching out those elements which seemed to make Hawaiian bao different from its Chinese relation – elements such as the joint use of yeast and baking powder in the Manapua dough, as well as the addition of sesame oil. And the tradition of using NO soy sauce in it. In the end, I think I’ve captured the essence of the true street food known in Hawaii as Char Siu Manapua.
Char Siu Manapua Filling
1 lb. Char Siu Pork, chopped into small dice (make your own, or buy it at the market – where it might be called, Chinese BBQ Pork)
1 cup water
2 Tbs. cornstarch
2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2-3 garlic cloves, minced fine (optional)
1 Tbs. of minced ginger (optional)
8-10 drops of red food coloring (optional – this is quite common with the commercial Manapua)
(Note: many recipes I found included elaborate mixtures of what were essentially the very same ingredients that went into the initial marinade for making Char Siu – so, an additional option for those of you who made your own Char Siu might be to add a few Tbs. of the marinade you used. You did save the marinade, right?)
- Combine all ingredients, except meat, and bring to a low boil over medium heat, stirring continually.
- Once mixture begins a boil, turn down heat and cook at a low simmer for a minute or two, again stirring continually.
- Now add diced meat and mix well, and cook for an additional minute.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temp – set aside until later.
1 Tbs. instant yeast
1/4 cup of warm water (90 degrees F)
1 1/2 cups warm milk (90 degrees F)
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbs. sesame oil
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 1/2 – 4 cups AP flour
2 cups cake flour, or sub AP flour if that’s all you have ( If you only have bread flour and cake flour, as I, use 4 cups cake and 2 cups bread in total)
- Combine 1/4 cup of water, yeast, and a pinch of your sugar in a small bowl – stir to mix and allow to rest until it gets foamy.
- In a large bowl, mix the rest of your sugar with the warm milk, and mix until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add two cups of cake flour and mix with whisk until all liquid is absorbed.
- Add salt, baking powder, and sesame oil, and whisk well.
- Add yeast mixture and mix well again.
- Slowly add the remaining 4 cups of AP flour (1 cup at a time) until well mixed, but be careful not over-mix – you don’t want this dough to develop much gluten – so, do not knead.
- You may not need all this flour – hold back the last 1/2 cup of flour, and leave the mixed dough for 10 minutes – when you return, if your dough is easy to handle, and not very sticky, it’s ready and you don’t need the last 1/2 cup of flour.
- When dough is well mixed (it does not need to be smooth and satiny!), remove to a clean, oiled bowl – roll dough ball around to cover with oil – cover bowl with plastic wrap or a towel, and move to a warm proofing area, such as a cool oven with the light on, or inside a microwave with a oven proof cup of boiling water – leave until doubled in size, maybe 2-3 hours.
- Move to a lightly floured board – punch dough down, and divide into 24 equal pieces (I do this by weight – weigh entire ball and divide by 24 – this makes medium sized bao, if you wish larger ones, divide into 12 pieces.).
- Cover pieces with a towel and leave for 15-20 minutes.
- Working again on the flour coated board (if your dough doesn’t stick, don’t use any dusted flour), press or roll each dough piece into a 3 to 4 inch flat disk.
- On each flattened dough disk, place a generous Tbs. of filling (on the larger dough pieces), or a scant Tbs. (on the smaller pieces) – you may want to increase the amount of filling for each bao – use your own judgment.
- Draw up the outside edges of each disk together and pinch closed as best you can – place each on a parchment covered sheet pan or tray upside down, so that the seams are on the bottom – this will both help seal the bao, and give each one a nice smooth look. (I had no problem with seals opening on the bottom, but I did have a problem with dough being too thin.)
- Cover the sheet pan with plastic or a towel, and allow to again rise until doubled in size – about 45 minutes to an hour.
Steaming The Manapua:
- If you have a big aluminum steamer, like mine, you’re all set. But big or small steamer, you’ll still probably have to schedule several batches. Your waiting bao will be fine, keep them covered with a towel while the others steam.
- Fill the bottom of the steamer with water.
- Cut a sheet of baking parchment up into 2 or 3 inch squares (depending on the size of your Manapua) – the Manapua will sit on these squares in your steamer, this will allow you to remove them easily after they steam but allow the steam to rise up around the squares while steaming.
- Once your water is boiling, place each Manapua, seam side down, on a square of parchment in your steamer tray, and place the tray over the boiling water.
- Before putting the lid on the steamer, place a tea towel across the top tray of bao in the steamer and then put the steamer lid on – this will keep the steam from dripping down on the Manapua as they steam.
- Steam for 12 minutes (for smaller steamers) or 15 minutes (for larger steamers like mine). Remove the steamer from the heat and let it cool down for about 10-15 minutes before removing the Manapua – if you are having to steam in batches, you may want to skip this step (see note below).
- Move the finished Manapua to a rack – you can eat these hot right out of the steamer, or let them cool to room temp.
My Notes: I was too intent on getting my dough disks 4 inches wide, 3 inches is fine! And take care not to get the flattened dough too thin, for it may open during steaming as several of mine did – better to roll out the disk evenly – do not stretch it out.
I decided to make medium sized bao – so I made 18 @ 2.7 oz each. I thought I’d be able to do them all at once, but no, that didn’t happen – you don’t want to crowd them in the steamer trays, but it’s not bad if they simply touch while steaming – they’ll pull apart easily.
Some of my finished bao had nice smooth tops, and some had wrinkles and dimples – one of my sources suggested that the wrinkles/dimples occur if the steamer is opened too soon after steaming, suggesting a wait of 10-15 minutes – not good, when you are steaming in batches, as I did. Frankly, I don’t see what’s so bad about the wrinkles/dimples. I also noticed that a two level steamer – like mine – may well give you smooth bao on the top level, while giving you wrinkled bao on the bottom! I have no idea what causes that.
I suspect 15 minutes was a bit too long for my Manapua – I remember them being somewhat fluffier in times past – they will have a natural chewy nature from the gluten in the flour, which is not unpleasant, but it is the fluffy character which identifies a good steamed Manapua.
These freeze very well – I put the cooled Manapua on a sheet pan and place in the freezer for a few hours, then move them to freezer bags – later, they are best revived by wrapping each in plastic wrap and giving them a 4o-50 second shot in the microwave.