Have you experience tasting certain foods and at that moment, it reminds you of certain time in your life? Nikuman (肉まん), or Japanese style Steamed Pork Buns, were my favorite winter snack during my commute home from college.
I used to stop by a convenience store for my Nikuman treat; the steaming hot bun kept my hands and heart warm. By the way, Japanese convenience stores are like a mini supermarket which sells a lot stuff, not just snacks and drinks. If you visit Japan, it’s definitely one place you should peak inside – it’s literally a “convenient” store.
What is Nikuman (肉まん)?
Nikuman is the Japanese name for the Chinese baozi (包子,肉包), also known as chūka man (中華まん). These steamed buns are made from flour dough and filled with meat and other ingredients. In western Japan (西日本) including Osaka, these steamed buns are called buta man (豚まん).
They are steamed usually inside the bamboo steamer and taste the best as you enjoy them right out of the steamer. The texture of the buns are very soft, moist, and chewy, and the juicy meat mixtures adds savory flavor to the plain buns.
During the winter months in Japan, convenience stores sell hot steaming chūka man including Nikuman, Kare–man (curry flavor), An-man (with red bean paste), and Pizza-man (pizza flavor).
Yokohoama, Japan’s 2nd largest city I grew up in, has the largest Chinatown and I loved walking around there seeing the traditional Chinese steamed buns that are as big as my face. Or at least that’s how I remembered as a small child.
My mom used to buy packaged steamed buns from the store and they tasted pretty good as I remembered. I never thought this dish is something we could make at home until I visited my high school friend’s house for lunch years ago.
She made homemade nikuman for us and I was very impressed that she made these nikuman from scratch and she told me it was very easy to make. The buns were so good as they were freshly made and everyone loved them. Since then I started to make my own and my family simply can’t eat enough, especially my daughter who loves the soft white steamed buns.
You might wonder if it’s really worth of your time to make these at home, especially if you are able to purchase them locally, or grocery stores nearby sell prepackaged steamed buns ready to be steamed. So I listed up some pros and cons that I think of:
- Make from scratch – This means everything. Additive and MSG free! Fresh ingredients!
- Cater to yourself – You don’t like pork? Then create your own fillings with your favorite ingredients that you want to stuff inside your steamed buns. Make it vegetarian or vegan. These steamed buns are for YOU! I like to make them in two sizes, big ones for adults and small ones (you see in today’s recipe) for kids.
- Simple recipe – I also thought steamed buns were going to be difficult to make. It is NOT. Glad I cleared my misunderstanding. Watch my video and you’ll see how simple it is.
- Taste fresh and delicious – Nothing is better than food made fresh, right in your own kitchen. Steamed buns is definitely one of those dishes. These nikumans are SO GOOD. Hope you try them!
- Freeze well – Leftovers can be frozen and reheated to eat at a later date.
- Takes some time – You have to let the dough rest and it’s necessary for good steamed buns. Period.
- Wrapping skills – Making the steamed buns look good will require some practice. BUT don’t worry. Just wrap the filling with this EASY METHOD I showed in the recipe (Step 18) or in my video tutorial. Now we’re down to one con.
Mastering Wrapping Buns for Nikuman
As I mentioned in the previous section, the wrapping part will be tricky. For many years, I wrapped the dough with the EASY METHOD I shared in my recipe (Step 18). My Nikuman tasted great, but the look of the nikuman could be better.
When my blogger friend Maggie of Ominivore’s Cookbook shared her Kimchi Pork Steamed Bun recipe, she also shared how her mom wrapped the dough in her youtube video. Since then, I’ve been wrapping my nikuman the same way. Well, to be honest, my wrapping skill is definitely as good as hers, but it’s a huge improvement to how my original nikumans looked!
So I leave it up to you to decide how you want to wrap the dough. The nikuman taste great either way. I’ll be practicing the wrapping skill meanwhile so I can share a better tutorial video one day. 🙂
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- 10.6 oz (300 g) all-purpose flour and more for dusting (See Note 1)
- Scant 2 Tbsp. (20 g) sugar (See Note 2)
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. instant dry yeast
- 1 Tbsp. canola oil (or vegetable oil)
- 160-170 ml (160-170 g) water (See Note 3)
- Put 11 oz flour, scant 2 Tbsp. sugar, ½ tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. instant dry yeast and 1 Tbsp. oil in a large bowl. While mixing the mixture with chopsticks or a wooden spoon, slowly pour 160-170 ml water into the mixture and mix until incorporated.
- Lightly dust your hand with flour to keep the dough from sticking too much. Use your hand to knead the dough , pressing it down and reshaping it. Form it into a ball.
- Sprinkle the working surface with flour. Transfer the dough onto the surface and start kneading. This is how I knead. First, press the top half of the dough, pushing forward slightly. Then pull it back and fold it in half and press it forward again with the heel of your hand twice. Then turn the dough slightly and repeat this process for 10-15 minutes or until the dough becomes smooth and silky. Sprinkle the dough with a little bit of flour at a time to help decrease the stickiness.
- Form the dough into a smooth, round shape, gently tucking loose ends underneath. Coat the bottom of the bowl with oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place until the dough doubles in size, about 30-60 minutes.
- While you’re waiting for the dough to rise, make the filling. First, soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in ½ cup water. Place something heavy on top so the whole shiitake will be submerged. Set aside for 10-15 minutes.
- Thinly slice the scallion. Remove the tough core of the cabbage and chop into 1” (2.5 cm) pieces.
- Sprinkle the chopped cabbage with 1 tsp. salt to draw out excess water.
- Once shiitake mushrooms are hydrated, squeeze the liquid out, cut off the tough stem, and mince the mushroom tops.
- In a large bowl, combine ground pork, scallion, and shiitake mushrooms. Squeeze the excess water out from the cabbage with your hands and add into the bowl.
- Grate ginger and add all the seasonings (1 tsp. sugar, 1 Tbsp. sake, 1 Tbsp. soy sauce, 1 Tbsp. sesame oil, 1 Tbsp. potato/corn starch, and freshly ground black pepper).
- Knead the mixture well until it is well combined and looks pale and sticky. Set aside (or cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge) until the dough is ready.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, dust the working surface with flour and divide the dough in half and then roll each piece of dough into a log. Cut each log into 5 even pieces and then cut each piece in half (See Note 4). Form each piece of dough into a ball and dust the dough balls with flour to avoid sticking to each other. Space each ball apart and cover loosely with damp kitchen cloth to avoid drying out. Let them rest for 10 minutes.
- Take a ball of dough and flatten it with your palm. Then roll it with a rolling pin into a round sheet. Here’s how I roll the dough. Hold the top of dough with left hand and use a rolling pin to roll out the dough with right hand. You only need to roll up and down on bottom half of the dough. After rolling 1-2 times, rotate the dough about 30 degree with left hand. Repeat this process until the dough becomes thin. The center of dough should be thicker than the edge.
- Scoop 1½ Tbsp of filling (with a 1½ Tbsp. cookie scoop) and place in the center of the dough.
- Hold the dough with the left hand and seal the bun using the right index finger and thumb. First, pick up a corner of the dough with your right index finger and thumb and pinch togeter (left picture). Without moving your thumb, use your right index finger to pick up the dough and pinch it with your thumb while rotating the dough clockwise with your left hand (right picture).
- Repeat this process about 10-12 times (=10-12 pleats) until you seal the last part of dough by pinching it tightly. Here are some tips: your left thumb should hold down the filling and use your left fingers to turn around the wrapper. Use your left index finger to help pleating. Also, lift up the pinched pleats slightly while you make the new pleat so the filling stays inside the dough.
- Once you finish sealing the last part of dough, twist the pleats further with your right index finger and thumb to maintain a tight seal. If you’re left handed, reverse the directions.
- Easy Alternative Option: Wrap the filling by bringing the dough up around the meat to the top, forming little pleats with the excess dough, then slightly twisting the dough to close it and pinching it firmly to join the edges.
- Place the bun on a piece of parchment paper that fits the bun (for small size, 3” x 3”). Cover the finished buns with plastic wrap and repeat this process with the rest of dough. Let the buns rest for 20 minutes.
- Bring water to boil and set a steamer. Once the water is boiling, place the buns and parchmentpaper in the steamer tray leaving about 2” between each bun (buns will get larger while being steamed). Close the lid and steam over high heat for 10 minutes (10 for small buns, 13 for medium, 15 for big). If you use a regular pot for steaming, wrap the lid with a kitchen cloth to prevent the condensation (formed on the lid) from dripping onto the buns. Enjoy immediately.
- The buns keep well in the fridge till next day and freeze well after steamed. Wrap them in plastic wrap and then pack them in freezer bags (I suggest to consume in 1 week). To reheat, steam frozen buns for a couple of minutes.
2: “Scant” 2 Tbsp. means “just barely” 2 Tbsp. Don’t fill the Tbsp. to the top and use slightly less than the required amount. (2 Tbsp. of granulated sugar is 25 grams, but we only need 20 grams.)
3: Start with 160 gram/ml of water first. Depending on the weather, you might need more.
4: You can divide into less pieces of dough to make bigger buns. It's also easier to work with smaller dough to make nice pleats when you wrap because it's hard to hold a big dough and filling in one hand.
Please note that prep time does NOT include inactive time (dough resting time).
Recipe by Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook. All images and content on this site are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without my permission. If you’d like to share this recipe on your site, please re-write the recipe in your own words and link to this post as the original source. Thank you.
Update: Each month 20% of proceeds from selling my eBook will go to charity. For February 2014, I donated to GlobalGiving “Disaster Recovery Volunteer Project”. Thank you for those who purchased the eCookbook!