Steamed buns or “mantou” are one of the quintessential food in Chinese and Singaporean culture. From the chocolate or pandan swirl steamed buns that we had in primary school, to the fried mantous we just can’t do without when eating chilli crab. The mildly sweet and fluffy treat is often enjoyed as it is while it is hot. However, it is also plain enough to go well with whatever you decide to pair it with, such as a chocolate spread, jam or honey.
In recent years, the surging popularity of cute, creative steamed buns has resulted in the emergence of adorably-shaped buns that are simply too cute to eat! Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, they also bring fun and joy to the eating experience through commentary that goes something like “OMG! You are eating the eyes!” or “How can you tear its head apart!”
While making bread or buns may sound intimidating to beginners, we, as novices to bun-making have put this tried and tested recipe to the test and passed! Not only did we challenge ourselves to bring you a cute dish, we also challenged ourselves to experiment with different flavours! During our experimentation phase, we played around with not just one but six other flavour formulations! We have chosen the three that work very well and are sharing them with you here, in the form of these cute, rotund, baby seals!
There are only three simple steps to making these steamed buns.
The first thing to do is to make the dough. Combine whole milk, fine sugar, peanut oil, yeast, all-purpose flour, and gently stir the ingredients together.
Move the dough mixture to a mixer and beat it until the dough is soft, smooth and mildly tacky.
Now, knead the dough into a long roll, and divide the dough into seven parts to start to make the individual buns.
Continue gently kneading the dough into an oval shape.
To start making the details of these cute buns, we slice the dough accordingly to desired shape or design. In this case, we are making seal-shaped buns so we are going to make three little slits to the oval-shaped dough. Put that aside.
Take some leftover dough, start making the details of the face by adding a pinch of cocoa powder, small amount of milk, and start using your hands to mix the dough until the colour is consistent. It should look dark brown.
Continue rolling, and start using this dough to make the details of the buns – We are using this to make the face.
Spread some milk over the surface for the details to stick better.
As some of the details may be intricate, you might want to use a toothpick to help you with the finer details.
Place the designed dough on top of a steaming paper and proof for about an hour. They are ready to be steamed!
The last step is just to steam for 18 minutes, and they are ready to be served!
We would never profess ourselves as expert bun-makers just from the few trials we had, but we would like to share our learning journey with you, be it for fellow beginners to gain some insights that may enhance your baking experience or for more experienced home cooks to nod sagely in acknowledgement.
Like any other skill, bread/bun-making requires practice, patience and some luck. Yeast can be a fickle thing to work with, but it can also produce amazing results. It will give you a great sense of satisfaction when your bun turns out steaming and fluffy. Yet sometimes, perhaps for seemingly inexplicable reasons, your bun decides it would much rather be a rock - Yours truly doesn’t know why that happened either. But the important thing is to keep trying! Do some further research if necessary, perhaps it has to do with the type of yeast used or over/under-kneading the dough.
Recipe creation is also easier when you have a foundational understanding of the elements in a regular recipe. This way when you alter ingredients you can already predict what sort of results you expect to see. If you do not yet have a strong foundation, you can still try playing around with the recipes! Just make smaller modifications, such as substituting milk for taro milk, as we have done in this case. Just by this principle, the possibilities are already plenty! You can try replacing milk with matcha latte, coffee, thai milk tea, etc. Though keeping in mind that the flavours and colours will be a lot more muted after it is mixed with the flour and yeast, so you might want to try a “kopi-gao”-esque replacement.
Keep a light-hearted attitude towards your learning and creation process and this will make your journey a lot more fun and enjoyable! Even when a recipe fails, take a minute to slowly try out the product anyway (unless it’s certifiably inedible of course). Take a bite of previously mentioned rock and figure out what does work in that recipe, maybe the texture has A LOT of improvement room, but perhaps you do like the flavour. You may want to make a note of that.
We hope that we have inspired some of you to step out of your comfort zone and try out new things - be it a completely new recipe or modifying a familiar recipe to incorporate new flavours. The feeling of creating something new to share with your friends and family is an incredible one indeed!