DOESN’T IT HELP YOUR CONFIDENCE IN MAKING THESE IN YOUR OWN KITCHEN, KNOWING THAT THEY AREN’T IMMORTALS,
THAT THEY TOO BLEED JUICE, JUST LIKE THE REST OF US.
To most people who aren’t born or raised in China or any of its politically disputed subparts, the idea of cooking Chinese cuisine, I guess, can feel intimidating. For one, it sounds big. And it is big. It is big in a sense that it’s actually less confusing to approach it not as a generalized whole, but as a ccoalition of many different regional representatives. The food cultures in the north, really is a world away from the south, and from the east coast-lines to the west high mountains, vice versa. And to make matters more complicated than say, how it is in America, in the best as well as the worst sense, the gaps between regional cultures aren’t yet as erased by modernization and technologies as we speak. So if you think you’re scared about making southern dim-sum simply because you aren’t Chinese, know that there’s someone else born and raised in northern China, who feels just the same. But I’m not saying this to scare you. I’m saying this to let you know that, yes, while there is real deep stuff to be sorted out in the study of Chinese cuisine, it is also just as important to know that a lot of it, is actually just bullshit.
Now, this is the first mental fortification you should master if you want to tackle this massive beast, knowing its bluff, knowing that a lot of the seemly variations in its dishes are just the smokes of admirable marketing campaigns. For one example, when it comes to the dazzling and curious case of unleavened meat pies (where the dough is without yeast), besides their shapes and sizes and minor variations in flavours, I’m afraid that the only clear difference, like many other dishes I might add, lies within the fabrication of their biographies.
Chinese likes to dream up mystical background stories for their culinary legends, much like the way how people love to believe that Apple began humbly from a pile of junks inside Steve Job’s garage. And speaking of whom, now I think about it, these stories almost always circulate around some kind of emperors (or empresses) just as well. Take these two for example, the most common types of meat pies that can be seen all over the streets in Beijing, the large and flat xiang-he (fragrant river) meat pies, and the small and stubby men-ding (door nail) meat pies. Both are made up with a thin layer of soft and unleavened dough that’s stuffed with ground beef filling (or pork if you’d like) seasoned with dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, blah blah and all the usual suspects. But what really makes them stand apart from each other, flavourfully speaking if any, is of course, the legends.
The legend has it, that one day in the year of 1770 (specification is the key to a believable bullshit), the Qian Long emperor of the Qing dynasty, disguised as a commoner (so he didn’t startle the peasant girls, obviously), travelled to the region of the fragrant river xiang-he and walked into a local joint famous for its meat pies (because the emperor ate what the people ate). He, or one of his disguised entourages ordered the meat pie, and upon the second bite (after the poison-tester took the first), the emperor was stunned by the unparalleled deliciousness coming through this humble commoner’s food (I suspect because he only had shits to eat in his grand palace). He immediately demanded for his awesomely cool calligraphy tools and left a little poem right then and there (the emperor liked to immediately write down whatever that occurred to him because he cared too much), “Xiang-he has this magic pie, the cook owns his wonderful skills. A meal at this very joint, non of the others can fulfil. (the emperor didn’t have to be good at poems. he was the emperor.)”. And just like, boom, the xiang-he meat pie was born, and exploded in popularity across the country.
But the men-ding (door nail) meat pie is not gonna go down without a fight. The legend has it, that one day the imperial chef of The Forbidden City made a peculiarly shaped meat pie that was 6 cm wide and stood 4 cm tall (nobody in China had ever imagined such ingenuity), and served it to the Empress dowager of the late Qing dynasty, Ci Xi (probably the most resented, hated, blackened, evil political bitch of the entire Chinese history). Upon her first bite (as always), Ci Xi was impressed by the dish (and believe me, she didn’t get impressed easily) and asked the imperial chef for the name of the meat pie. The chef took a few seconds (probably peeing his pants at the moment from the fear of being beheaded if he didn’t have an answer), and thought the shape of the giant metal door-nails on the wooden gates of the palace, really resembled his creation, so he answered, “It’s men-ding (door nail) meat pie”. And just like that, the men-ding meat pie was born, and for no reason in particular, forever symbolizes peace and prosperity (doesn’t everything).
I mean let’s face it, non of that ever happened, probably just endorsements the restaurants made up to sell the customers meat pies, either flat and wide or stubby and tall, that practically makes and tastes the same. So you see, a seemingly confusing and intimidating variation of Chinese meat pies, demystified. I for one, prefer the door-nail meat pies. It’s got a nice ring to it. But doesn’t it help your confidence in making both of them in your own kitchen, knowing that they aren’t immortals, and that they too bleed, just like the rest of us. In fact, they do bleed, squirt actually, if not careful, of scorching meat-juice that runs through their pressed skins that are crispy on the top and bottom, but soft and delicate on the sides. The ground beef filling teeming with diced scallions, are bouncy and almost succulently juicy, outweighing the wrapper in mystical proportions. But why stop there? Why not make a new legend? A good nub of pureed scallion and ginger butter is then smeared and melted all over the top, announcing a new chapter in its ever evolving story. The legend has it, that when I rubbed the scallion butter over the hot crackly pie-surfaces and watched it encase slowly, and ever so mesmerisingly, down and around the edges of my creations, I saw the fiercely green jade bangle around my left wrist and was bewitched by the resembling beauty… Right then and there, I took my sharpie and wrote down on a napkin tinted with watermelon juice…
Just like that, the jaded (pun intended) door-nail meat pies rubbed in scallion butter, was born, and forever symbolizes truth and the needlessness for bullshits when it comes to making good foods.
- 2 cups + 1 tbsp (300 grams) bread/high-gluten flour (12~14% protein)
- 1 cup (240 grams) warm water at 125F/55C, plus 1 tbsp (15 grams)
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 21 oz (600 grams) ground beef or pork
- 1 cup (85 grams) finely diced scallions
- 3 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- 3/4 tsp light brown sugar
- 5 tbsp cold water?or beef stock if available)
- 4 tbsp (56 grams) unsalted
- 1/2 tbsp diced ginger
- 1/2 cup (43 grams) diced scallions
- Ground white pepper and chili flakes to dust
- Xi'an style chili oil to serve
- TO MAKE THE DOUGH: In a stand-mixer with dough-hook, or hand-held mixer with dough-hook, knead bread flour, 1 cup (240 grams) of warm water (a bit too hot to leave your finger inside comfortably) and salt on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping down the bottom and sides a couple times, until evenly incorporated. The dough will feel slightly dry at first, then as it kneads, become very wet and sticky. Switch to high speed and knead for another 6~8 minutes until smooth and very elastic. Now add 1 extra tbsp of water and continue to knead on high for another 5 min, until the dough is shiny and lava-like (adding water in 2 stages increases the water-absorbency of the flour). Cover the bowl with plastic-wrap and let rest for at least 2 hours, up to several hours (you can make the dough in the morning and use it for dinner at night). At which point, the dough should look extremely shiny and flattened out without form.
- TO MAKE THE FILLING: In a bowl, mix ground beef (or pork), diced scallions, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, ground white pepper and light brown sugar with a fork. Keep stirring until you feel the mixture getting thick and resistant. Then start evenly mixing in the water (or beef stock), 1 tbsp at a time, until it's fully absorbed into the mixture, about 30 seconds for each addition. Cover with plastic-wrap and set aside in the fridge.
- TO MAKE THE SCALLION BUTTER: In a food-processor, pulse unsalted butter with diced ginger until evenly pureed (scraping the sides a few times). Add the diced scallions and pulse again until finely minced into the butter. Set aside.
- TO MAKE/COOK THE SMALL DOOR NAIL MEAT PIES: This dough is EXTREMELY WET, so don't be afraid to dust it with more flour as you go. With oiled hands, take about 2 tbsp of the dough and set it on a well-dusted surface. Dust the top with more flour then flatten it into a thin disk with your hands, but making the edges gradually thinner than the center (let's say 4 mm in the center and 2 mm for the edges). Place about 3 tbsp of filling (be real generous with the filling) in the center, then pull the sides of the dough up and pinch it tightly to seal on the top (if you feel that there's too much excess dough on the top, you can pinch it off). Because the dough is wet and stretchy, this should be quite easy to do. Turn the pie over now to make sure it's not sticking, then with you palms, gently pat and squeeze all around the pie to evenly distribute the filling, then set aside on a well floured plate. Repeat with the rest.
- At this point, the pies are too soft to be shaped into the tall "door nail / biscuit" shape, so flash freeze the pies for about 1 hour until slightly hardened, then shape them into round cylinders about 1 1/2" (4 cm) tall with flat tops and bottoms. Coat the bottom of a flat non-stick skillet with 2 tbsp canola oil and heat over medium-high heat, then arrange the peat pies with about 1" (3 cm) space in between. Once they start to sizzle, add 3 tbsp of water and put the lid on immediately (the pies are thick so they need steam to help cooked through). Turn the heat DOWN TO MEDIUM and cook for about 5~7 min until the steam has fully evaporated, and the bottom of the pies are golden browned. Carefully flip the pies and cover with lid only halfway (but don't add more water). Cook for another 5 min until the second side is golden browned as well. Transfer to a serving plate, and while still hot, rub the top with scallion butter and dust with white pepper and chili flakes. Serve immediately with chili oil.
- TO MAKE THE LARGE XIANG-HE MEAT PIE: This dough is EXTREMELY WET, so don't be afraid to dust it with more flour as you go. With oiled hands, take 1/2 of the dough and place on a well-dusted surface. Dust the top again with flour, and flatten it into a large disk, making the edges gradually thinner than the center (let's say 10 mm in the center and 5 mm on the edges). Place 1/2 of the filling in the center, then pull the sides of the dough up and pinch tightly to seal on the top, and pinch off any excess. Turn the pie over now to make sure it's not sticking. Now your hands or rolling pin, gently flatten the pie outwards from the center towards the edges until it's about 1/3" (10 mm) thick.
- Coat the bottom of a flat non-stick skillet with 2 tbsp of canola oil and heat over medium-high heat. Gently curl the pie onto a rolling pin and carry over the skillet, then unroll to release it onto the skillet. Cook for about 5 min until golden browned on the first side, then flip with a wide spatula, and cook for another 5 min until browned on the second side as well. Transfer to a serving plate, and while still hot, rub with scallion butter and dust with white pepper and chili flakes. Serve immediately with chili oil.
I ran out of dark soy sauce while making this recipe, but if you do have it, use 2 tbsp dark soy sauce and 1 1/2 tbsp regular soy sauce. It will give the filling a better color.
The door-nail meat pie, compared to xiang-he meat pie, has a higher meat ratio and more juice, which I prefer.