A Fourteenth-Century Buddhist Bun
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
Vegetarianism was fashionable in the Song dynasty (960-1279). Many members of the ruling elite were devout Buddhists. They visited monasteries and hung out with monks, debating the finer points of scripture. Some refused to eat meat and eggs, equating such foods with murder. A few die-hards even swore off beer and wine.
The strict diet presented a dilemma. Some devout Buddhists believed that animal products and alcohol were essential to good health. They complained that a plant-based diet left them sick and malnourished. Still others craved flesh and found themselves relapsing. Some of them occasionally ate animals that had died of natural causes.
Cooks rose to the challenge of making a cruelty-free diet both appealing and satisfying. They stewed bamboo shoots and deep-fried peonies. Some of them experimented with preparing food with ghee, sesame oil, and yogurt. These rich garnishes injected much-needed richness into meals. Cooks also devised ingenious tricks for turning gluten into “turtles.”
The efforts paid off. Foodies could not get enough of vegetarian food. Before long, restaurants sold meat-free snacks “just like in monasteries.” Book sellers also catered to the demand for such foods. In response, they included vegetarian recipes in popular almanacs.
The recipe below is from a fourteenth-century collection. Crunchy, complex, and creamy, the Buddhist bun is unlike anything I have eaten in Asia. If you are in the mood for ethical eating, this is a good place to start.
I have streamlined the recipe in the interest of time, selecting only the ingredients that give the steamed buns their distinctive taste.
Gluten, ½ cup
Fresh cheese, 2/3 cup (you can use crumbled paneer, strained ricotta, queso fresco, or mascarpone). For a Chinese recipe, click here.
Mushrooms, 1/3 cup
Wood ears, 1/3 cup
Bamboo shoots, 1/3 cup (omit if brined or canned)
Dried persimmon, 1 fruit
Lotus root, 1/3 cup
Chinese yam, de-skinned (or substitute jicama or water chestnuts), 1/3 cup
Walnuts, 1/3 cup (de-skinned)
Spinach (1/3 cup)
Chinese celery, 1/3 cup (optional; do not substitute regular celery)
Chinese sweet wheat sauce, ¼ to 1/3 cup
Honey, 1 Tablespoon
1. Follow this recipe to make the dough for the bun.
2. While the dough rises, prepare the filling. If using dried gluten and wood ears, you will need to soak these ahead of time.
3. Strain any excess liquid from the ingredients. Mince and mix in a bowl.
4. Add the seasoning, adjusting the amount of honey and sauce according to taste. Drizzle in a little sesame oil.
5. Fill the buns. Be sure to roll the dough out thick. The final product should be a sturdy, fluffy bun like char siu bao. Also leave an opening at the top of the bun.
6. While the buns steam, prepare the yogurt sauce. Mix yogurt with a little mild rice vinegar, diluted in water. Adjust sourness to taste.
7. When the buns are ready, drizzle the yogurt sauce into the holes of the buns.