I am Chinese. I was not born in China. I have never lived in Asia. I was born in Honolulu and moved to Vancouver when I was 11. My first language was English. My family speaks a small Chinese dialect called Hokkien, and unlike Cantonese and Mandarin, it is spoken in very few places of the world.
As the result of my pretty westernized life, sometimes I find it hard to feel Chinese. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t still raised with some very Asian ideals and values–yes I save all my plastic bags and take off my shoes at the front door–but to other Chinese people, I wasn’t very Chinese at all.
One of the biggest parts of any culture is food, and in Chinese culture food is massively important. I love Chinese food! I love those big family gatherings where me and 15 of my extended family members would go out and order a million dishes–noodles, duck, rice, fish, prawns–and eat until one piece was left on every plate. (And no one would eat it to be polite.)
My mom cooked Chinese food a lot when I was a kid, but since cooking was never really something I enjoyed, I never really learned. And when I started baking, I didn’t bake Chinese pastries, and I don’t really ever incorporate Asian flavours into my stuff (something I absolutely want to start doing.)
But I loved Chinese bakeries. In Chinatown, they’re everywhere. My family used to go, and I would always want to be the person in charge of holding the little white tray covered in wax paper, picking up the little breads with tongs. It would always smell like freshly baked bread, and the display cases were full of little pork buns, ham and cheese buns, tuna salad buns, and custard buns (that usually looked like a bear or something cute).
My mom would always say, “Pick out one or two things you want for breakfast tomorrow,” and I would always get the same thing: hot dog buns. If you are a little Asian kid, I can almost guarantee that you’ve had a Chinese hot dog bun before. They’re an Asian bakery staple. If a bakery doesn’t have hot dog buns, leave because they can’t be good. Even here in NYC, I still occasionally pick up a hot dog bun from the Japanese bakery down the street. They have been and still are a huge part of my life.
As I grew up eating these buns, I was always amazed at the dough encasing these hot dogs. Asian bakery bread is nothing like western bread. It is so soft and smooth–even moist. The texture of Asian bakery bread is something I have never experienced in western baked goods ever, and therefore, I didn’t learn how they were made in school. Most culinary schools have a European curriculum, so this would never be something they taught.
So I went through culinary school learning all about how to make various European breads, but my question of how to make that soft, silky Asian bread was never answered. So I continued to buy hot dog buns until one day… I realized… what the hell was stopping me from learning how to make it myself?
For some reason, I had never thought to just Google it. I don’t know–I think a part of me thought that it’d require rare Asian ingredients that I couldn’t acquire, or that it’d need some sort of antique Asian tools and equipment.
Spoiler alert, it’s really freaking easy.
So yesterday, I looked up a recipe. I stumbled across one from the food blog, The Woks of Life, and it looked promising. The Woks of Life is a blog run by an Asian family that finds authentic Asian recipes, test them, and then post them. Definitely go check them out, they’re awesome. The exact recipe I used is here.
I gathered my ingredients and got to work. The dough is so simple: put everything in a bowl and then knead for 15-20 minutes. It is a very unique dough in its ingredients, and I think it has everything to do with why the texture is so smooth and soft. Like a basic bread dough, it has yeast, flour, a liquid, and salt. What makes it different is that instead of just bread flour, it also has a small amount of cake flour. And for the liquid it calls for milk, but also heavy cream.
When it was done kneading, I left the dough for an hour to proof. Meanwhile, I quickly pan fried the sausages and let them cool.
The dough was incredibly soft and fluffy. I portioned it into 10 balls, and rolled them into long logs. These logs were then wrapped around each individual hot dog, and the buns were covered and proofed again.
Finally, they were egg washed and baked. I was so excited to see how they turned out. They looked amazing wrapped up in the puffy dough already, but I really hoped they were going to bake beautifully.
When they came out of the oven, I brushed them with a light coat of simple syrup, which–(I didn’t know this!)–gives the breads in Chinese bakeries their signature shine.
So what’s the verdict?
Well, they were delicious! But were they the best they could be? Not quite. So in The Woks of Life, they recommend pan frying the sausages lightly before baking to give them a better texture and flavour. In most Chinese bakeries, the sausages are just baked raw, and it results in a rubbery texture. These buns with the pan fried hot dogs were infinitely better than the buns where the hot dog is just baked in. That is something I highly recommend doing as well.
The dough was very soft, however, not as soft as I know Asian bakeries can get them! I think the reason for this is because this dough did not use the tangzhong method–aka “water roux.” It is a Japanese bread making method, where a small portion of the water and flour of a bread recipe are separated and cooked. Specifically, 1 parts bread flour to 5 parts water cooked to 65C. This method of bread making results in a soft and bouncy bread that is unique to Asia. The science makes sense: cooking the flour pre-gelatinizes the starches in the flour and heating the flour and water strengthens the gluten structure. This means that it can hold much more water throughout the bread making process, resulting in a moister, softer dough! (source: here)
Magic? Nah. Asians.
So I think the next time I attempt these hot dog buns I will use the tangzhong method. Regardless, I am very happy with the result of these hot dog buns. Maybe it’s stupid, but I feel more connected to my culture after having made them. It’s one of the only Asian things I can make from scratch, and after I perfect them, I hope that one day my great grandchildren will buy a hot dog bun from a bakery and angrily say to themselves, “My grandma makes better hot dog buns. Can't believe I wasted $1.50 on this." That's Asian grandma goals right there.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out The Woks of Life if you wanna try this recipe too!