WanderFood Wednesday: North China Bun Quest

by Carolyn B. Heller - WanderFood
( July 5th, 2011 )

Chive bunsLike most food obsessions, mine began innocently enough.

On my first morning in Beijing, I stepped out of my guesthouse into the bustle of a serpentine alley.

Amid the scurrying shoppers, honking taxis, and bell-clanging bicycles, I stopped at a sidewalk bakery stall, where a battered wooden table overflowed with stacks of round breads. Some were bright yellow-gold, some were puffy white, while others were floury or studded with sesame seeds.

Beijing hutongI pointed to a golden one, handed over one yuan, and bit in. I expected sweet, since the bread resembled a flattened hole-less donut. Instead, I got a mouthful of flaky pastry and then grassy, brassy garlic.

I had chosen a pan-fried chive bun.

This crisp vegetal sandwich was forest green inside, a mash of garlic chives dotted with sunny bits of scrambled egg.

I later learned that it’s called “jiucai hezi” – a chive “box” or “pocket.” And after my first garlic-filled bite, I was hooked.

From that day on, as I journeyed across northeastern China, from Beijing through the distant northern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, I bracketed my days with bread.

For breakfast, it was pillowy-soft mantou, steamed ivory balls puffed up like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Lunch from a street stall in frantically-urban Shenyang was a floury English muffin, unexpectedly stuffed with a sweet bean paste.

St. Sophia's Church HarbinAmong the turreted Russian-style buildings in Harbin, I found a dense steamed bun made of cornmeal – barbecued pork with a maize cover.

In Dandong, on the border of North Korea, it was a variation on my chive favorite, a golden fried bread filled with just-wilted leeks.

And everywhere, I sought out the golden, garlicky chive pockets that had first triggered my fixation.

Breads for saleEverywhere, too, I haunted bookstores, looking for cookbooks that would enable me to fuel my doughy dependence back home.

There were plenty of cookbooks, to be sure, their pages lined with enticing photos of crispy buns, pale ivory breads, and meticulously-wrapped dumplings. But I don’t read much Mandarin, and the instructions remained maddeningly indecipherable.

Finally, I found a thin paperback with the cheery title, “Welcome to the Flour Family.” Not only did it boast alluring photos, but its text was in both Chinese and English.

I packed the book into my dusty carry-on, and, after one more golden-brown chive bun, I boarded the plane for home.

Welcome to the Flour FamilyBack in my own kitchen, though, I discovered that my Flour Family cookbook was depressingly vague. Use a “suitable amount of filling,” it advised, or “fry until done.”

So, many buns later, my obsession continues. As I chop garlic chives, scramble eggs, and mix flour and water, always seeking the proper balance, I think back to the narrow lanes in Beijing, lined with bread-sellers’ stalls.

Before I went to China, I had expected to return with memories of ancient palaces and modern cities, of wild-west-style border towns and deep green forests.

Yet the green of my now-dough-covered dreams is not the tall pines of the northern woods.

It’s the forest-green filling of a crisp garlicky sandwich.


Update: Want to learn how to make chive buns? Here’s a chive bun recipe.

Thanks to roboppy (Robyn Lee) for the chive bun photo (via flickr).

From our partners
On July 6th, 2011 at 6:44 am, Mara said:

I love it that you wrote a post about breakfast food in China – not something I’d ever thought about, but completely compelling! I would have done the exact same thing you did and tried to find a cookbook. How close have you come to replicating them?

On July 6th, 2011 at 9:58 am, Jessica said:

I hope you are able to find a suitable recipe for your craving. I have been trying, in great vain, to duplicate a recipe for dutch waffles. I can still taste them, but cannot replicate. Thanks for hosting.

On July 6th, 2011 at 3:16 pm, Lisa Goodmurphy said:

They sound absolutely delicious – I’ve developed a craving without ever having tasted them!

On July 6th, 2011 at 6:23 pm, Henry Lee said:

Carolyn, thanks for your article. I was reminded of various bits of wisdom our mother tried passing to us (unsuccessfully) about the perfect bun. Although my parents are from southern China, I suspect you could do a national tour to search for the perfect bun. I love how many end up remembering or dreaming about that perfect food on our travels.

On July 7th, 2011 at 4:16 pm, Carolyn B. Heller said:

Hi, @Mara and @Jessica,
Thanks for your comments. I was able to come up with a recipe that’s a reasonable approximation of the chive buns I had in China. I’ll post that recipe later this week. And fortunately, I’m now based in Vancouver, which has excellent Chinese food, including several bakeries that make chive buns!

On July 7th, 2011 at 4:17 pm, Carolyn B. Heller said:

@Lisa, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

On July 7th, 2011 at 4:18 pm, Carolyn B. Heller said:

@Henry, a tour of China searching for the perfect bun—now that would be an awesome trip! All I need is someone to sponsor the quest for the ultimate bun… :)

On July 7th, 2011 at 8:34 pm, The Rowdy Chowgirl said:

Great post. I love finding a food quest to pursue while traveling, and the chive buns look mouthwatering!

On July 11th, 2011 at 10:34 am, Melinda Sabo said:

I look forward to the chive-bun recipe…they sound amazing!
Thanks for sharing your great story – I “liked it” on StumbleUpon so likeminded traveling foodies can enjoy it too. Welcome to the Wanderlust and Lipstick crew!

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