A guy in an all black uniform with Havana Central brightly embroidered on the chest stands on the Broadway sidewalk less than a block from my building yelling “Empanadas $1″ to passersby. It is a Thursday afternoon in the middle of the abnormally cool and rainy New York City summer and the patio of this kitschy Cuban restaurant is made even louder with large banners to advertise this weekly deal. I speed past like always but in a few steps I am overcome by a sense of intrigue and dejavu. Stopping dead in my path, I reach for one dollar and turn around to gleefully order an empanada.
Two months later, I’m still smiling. The empanada had a crisp shell with piping hot chicken stew inside. Texturally it was magnificent. But, the emotion that forced me to about-face on the busy sidewalk and bring home this aluminum-wrapped treat originated not with the empanada muezzin, but two summers ago when in Beijing to study Mandarin. In China there were baozi.
Baozi can be very diverse in taste and preparation, but essentially, baozi are steamed bread-like buns with a filling of meat, vegetables, or both. It seems that they’re sold everywhere in Beijing. Where I stayed in YanBeiYuan, an apartment village a short distance from Peking University, there was a dirt road amongst the tall buildings and on it a little restaurant displayed stacked steamer trays every morning. On the bus ride to the campus, people parked bicycles and lined up for this breakfast food at shop windows surrounded by posters with the daily menu of baozi written in large, bold characters. For weeks my heart filled as I rode past, never courageous enough to try these shadier establishments.
The day I had my first baozi, though, something in me changed. It was early afternoon and I was headed to the makeshift dorm set up for students in a hotel on campus. With two stacks of bamboo steamers on a cart, the restaurant next door was selling off baozi from that morning’s breakfast. Anticipating heavy traffic from the hotel of international travelers, these pockets of pork or vegetables were nearly double the price of the other places and still only about $0.16. They were incredible. The full flavor of freshly ground pork was gently enhanced with ginger and chives. Though it was a remnant from breakfast hours before, the steam from the bubbling pan beneath preserved the soft dough without forming a dense skin. I was in love.
I went to China with the intention of eating real Chinese food and as much of it as possible. I tried some amazing dishes while there, but nothing stands out in my mind like the baozi I ordered nearly every day for lunch as I ate with a tray of marinated cucumbers in the cute blue cafeteria near class at BeiDa (Peking University). A bag of about 20 mini dumplings were even the parting meal my host mother bought for me as I rushed for a bus to the airport. After nine weeks I had had enough of the excessive humidity and stares as I towered above every crowd. I still long for more baozi.
I bought a tiny baozi cookbook to use up some of my RenMinBi at the airport. It’s been two years and I still have not translated the recipes. So New York, I’m asking you to stop teasing me with empanadas and beef patties and all those memories of street purchases. Please, tell me: Where can I find some good baozi? Dumplings cannot satisfy this two-year craving.