Winter at Anson Mills
One day last year out of the blue, our friend Dawn said, “You guys should make udon and char siu bao with Anson Mill flours! I bet they’d be fantastic!” For those of you who haven’t touched a pair of chopsticks in 10 or 15 years, udon are thick white Japanese noodles traditionally served in hot broth, or dashi. The udon craze reached pop-culture hysteria a few years back, which is funny since almost no one, not even the chefs who serve it, makes the noodles from scratch. The dish has become all about broth and trimmings.
Char siu bao, from Guangdong province in southern China, are steamed buns (actually more of a bread dumpling) filled with sticky, diced Chinese-spiced barbequed pork. A deconstructed version of the preparation—slices of barbecued pork belly nestled in soft folded buns—is a signature and oft-imitated dish of Chef David Chang. But Chef Chang’s dish is all about the pork—the buns in question come from an outside vendor.
We were intrigued by Dawn’s ideas, but cautious. Culinary classics from far-off lands—especially former cult icons—give us pause. So we paused. We’re comfortable digging around in our own cupboards, but in an exotic Asian larder? We do fancy ourselves nimble with dough, noodle, or bun . . . but could Fingerspitzengefühl deliver us from sin?
Then again, we are rather proud of our wheat. So we said, “Eh, what the hell?”
Cuisine untouched by Western influence resides only in the mystical past of the Far East. We knew Western influence had, over time, trespassed upon these dishes. What were they supposed to be like? Our virtual journey took us to intermediate stops on the West Coast—and then to the Orient.
This one we threw right back at Dawn. She is of Japanese ancestry, loves food, and is proficient in several Asian cuisines. She also lives and eats in the Bay Area, where descendants of Chinese and Japanese immigrants nurture their iconic foodways more faithfully than anywhere else in the country. Employing the timeworn Japanese treading technique to knead the dough, an ever-decreasing percentage of water in the recipe, and her characteristic doggedness, she eventually produced udon with correct resilience and lovely new crop wheat flavors with our French Mediterranean White Bread Flour. The noodles swirled round the bowl and slurped silkily down the throat. Her dashi had clarity and depth, and the mirin-seasoned morsels of chicken and shiitake garnish were tender and satisfying. But Dawn, a strict traditionalist, wasn’t satisfied: instead of their customary alabaster hue, these noodles shone an earthy off-white. The visuals were all wrong! Dawn made her recipe again with commercial flour. Pristinely white, check. Correct texture, check. But compared to the heirloom wheat noodles from Anson Mills flour the snow-white udon carried no flavor at all. This clinched it for Dawn. There was no way she would go for a merely pretty girl when the unconventionally pretty girl next door was so compelling.
We had a feeling udon had not always been so white. Turns out we were right.
CHAR SIU BAO
Char siu bao is historically inseparable from dim sum, the small bites that began in teahouses serving rural workers along the Silk Road. Dim sum moved from the country to cities, became snacks at the center of informal daytime gatherings, and then assumed its modern identity as an endless brunch in steamy dining rooms with noisy patrons and snarls of food carts burdened with food.
I (Kay) have sampled steamed pork buns from dim sum carts and steamed pork buns from Chinese bakeries. No matter their form or size, I find myself feverish to grab one and sink my teeth into it. Nothing lets you sink your teeth as delectably as char siu bao: cushiony soft, finely pored, and utterly yielding, the first bite brings a hot puff of yeast and spice up your nose before the dark, sweet sauce bearing a dice of sticky pork trails over your tongue. The back teeth close around the softness of the dough. When done right, these buns hit every crave button known to man: sweet, savory, salty, yeasty, rich.
When done right. They can be as sweet as sticky buns, their filling a mangle of fat and gristle that dyes the tongue deep red. Dry, yawning, flavorless—you name it. The real problem here (with few exceptions) is that char siu bao has been low-balled to death with bad ingredients and kitchen shortcuts.
This was about to change. One ingredient to inform the change: Anson Mills Colonial Style Fine Cloth-Bolted Pastry Flour.
Come with us as we lead two classics back in time.
Happy travels, y’all, and Good Food!