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“Oh, so you also eat mantou?” asks my neighbor with raised eyebrows, after hearing about my hunt for the best local steamed buns in Beijing.
When trying to illustrate the gap in tastes between locals and non-locals in China’s capital, look no further than the demand for mantou (馒头). This plain steamed bun is hardly the hottest item on a visiting foodie’s list, but locals will line up for prominent mantou shops sometimes for hours.
In northern China, wheat traditionally surpasses the love of rice goods shared among southerners. And mantou — a glossy steamed bread made from white wheat flour, yeast, water, and a pinch of salt — is one bite-sized cornerstone of Beijingers’ love for mianshi (面食), or wheat-based products. As Siyu, a 35-year-old Beijing local, puts it:
“Once you eat [mantou], you can sleep with peace of mind.”
But what exactly makes these plain buns so beloved — and what separates the best from the rest?
You can find mantou in many shapes and sizes, as well as served in a variety of ways — ranging from elegant dim sum buns served in steamer baskets to roadside family-sized bread rolls.
Since plain mantou has very little flavor, it becomes more about its dense texture and what you serve it with. This simple steamed bread is one way to offset flavorful, salty, and oily Chinese foods, for instance. (My eyebrow-raising neighbor suggests frying and dipping them in sweet condensed milk.)
Yet even with the abundance of mantou shops in the capital, some still manage to steal the show. When I turned to locals for advice on the best shops in the neighborhood, several were quick to point out their favorites. “Around the corner, you can’t miss it. There is always a queue,” says Mr. Chen, the local bicycle repairman in my area of Gulou district. He points south, adding that this particular mantou shop has been running for “not so few years,” which we later agree is at least a decade. The couple that owns a nearby convenience store also suggests the same shop and its sister business across the lane, exclaiming that these buns are “delicious!”
The shop has over 4,700 reviews on Dianping — China’s answer to Yelp — and mantou here ranks the second most delicious in all of Beijing. Another popular item sold here — its red bean paste bun — even gets an honorable wanghong (网红, or Chinese internet-famous) designation, which is usually only given to rainbow soufflé pancakes or celebrity-endorsed milk tea. Users only complain about the wait, which can reportedly stretch up to two hours on its busiest days.
Upon arrival, a queue was indeed stretching outside the famed Shandong Drum Tower Mantou Shop (山东鼓楼馒头店), but thankfully, it was a humble one this time.
The popularity of the shop can be partially explained by its proximity to a tourist hotspot, South Luogu Lane, but long-time Beijingers are still the ones keeping the shop busy. In other words, it is a great place to catch up with local retirees.
If you ask Chinese people born post-’90s, meanwhile, this bread is considered an “essential” local food, but perhaps not as much a regular part of their diet as when they were younger. “I used to love eating toasted mantou with doufuru [豆腐乳, fermented bean spread],” recalls Qingxia, a 28-year-old Beijing native. “I don’t eat it much anymore for some reason as an adult, but as a kid, mantou was definitely an essential food for me.”
Mantou’s mythical origins date back to a legend from the Three Kingdoms Period (around 220–280 CE). In one version of the tale, a distinguished military strategist was preparing to cross over a turbulent river with his troops. The local folk way of appeasing the water spirits and gaining safe passage was to throw human heads into the river. As this strategist was not willing to sacrifice his soldiers, he used dough to mold human heads for the sacrifice, and thus fooled the water spirits into guaranteeing a crossing.
The name itself also has a rather interesting etymology. Over the centuries, the original “mán” (蛮) — meaning “savage” or “barbarian,” then a derogatory term for non-Han Chinese — became the contemporary mán (馒), giving this daily staple a backstory of bloodshed and trickery. It’s quite a meaty legend for the plain Jane of Chinese food.
The mantou at this particular establishment are huge and not terribly camera-friendly, with natural bumps and crooks covering the relief instead of a glossy smooth surface.
But the beauty of this bun truly lies below the surface. Biting into it reveals layered dough that can be peeled apart like an onion. Such layering locks in moisture and renders the the bun fluffier, as opposed to molding it from one piece.
After half a mantou, I head to the sister shop. This store made local headlines in February during the Covid-19 outbreak after using a plank as a slide to hand out mantou and keep its customers safe. Though better looking, these buns tasted far more dry and crispy on the outer layers.
That quickly gave way, however, to a bed of moist, dense dough with a steaming core. It was then clear that both stores use the same recipe, but different molding habits — edible proof that it all comes down to the hands that knead it.
Mantou are in many ways the unassuming, often misunderstood cousin of the dumpling family — beloved in the north, but puzzling to anyone who isn’t from there. Why wait hours for plain steamed buns when the cornucopia of Chinese food has seemingly no end in sight?
As my foodie friend puts it:
“When you go to an Italian restaurant, you first order a margherita [pizza]. Basics are the trickiest to master.”
After all, mantou is no less a blank slate than a baguette or a slice of rye bread, if you look past its surface.
All images: Tautvile Daugelaite
To learn how to make mantou on your own, join our dedicated Chinese food group on Facebook.
This post was last modified on June 18, 2020 4:45 pm