Spiral Mantou

Mantou, or 饅頭, is steamed yeast bread that is a major staple especially in northern China, where wheat rather than rice is grown. However, they really are eaten throughout the Sinosphere, not just in the north. Growing up, my mother often made mantou. We would usually eat them warm right out of the steamer, either by itself or with meals. So many varieties exist, from a simple roll eaten with a humble meal, to intricately folded rolls found in ceremonies and mantou-making competitions. It’s amazing how light and fluffy they are, especially since they require no butter or oil. The magic is in the steam!


First, activate the yeast:
  1. Activate yeast (about 1 tsp yeast for every 4 cups of flour) of by mixing active dry yeast with warm water (and a sprinkle of sugar may help feed the yeast), and wait 10 minute or so or until you see a lot of foam on top of the water. Then pour in with the dough.
Second, make the dough:
  1. Mix 4 parts all-purpose flour: 2 parts water (with the activated yeast): ½ part sugar (or less if you prefer). While mantous are generally fat-free, they do get quite dry the next day when cold, unless you steam them again. Thus, you may add 1/8 part oil as an option into the dough, but add this after kneading everything together (kneading helps gluten formation, which causes bread to be chewy) because oil hinders gluten formation and if you add oil too early, the dough gets messy.
  2. Knead for a few minutes, shape into a ball. If it’s too wet and sticky, add more flour. If it’s too dry and flaky, add more water. Keep kneading until you get a really smooth and elastic dough. If you poke your finger in the dough, the dough should indent then bounce right back.
Third, let it rise:
  1. Let the dough with the yeast rise for 1 hr (or more, depending on the temperature of the environment), or until double the size. This step is called “first proofing” or “bulk fermentation.”
Fourth, shape:
  1. Punch down the risen dough and knead it again to get rid of the big bubbles created by the yeast.
  2. To create a spiral design, split the dough in two, and add color to one of the doughs. For brown, you can add cocoa powder. For green, matcha powder. For yellow, pumpkin puree. For black, powdered black sesame. For purple, purple yam puree.
  3. For each dough, fold in thirds, roll out again, then fold in thirds again, then do over and over until you get plenty of “layers” of dough on each other. This will create a smooth mantou surface when you steam it.
  4. Roll each dough into a flat sheet, then layer one on top of the other.
  5. Roll the layered dough into a log, then cut cross-sections to reveal the round spirals.
Fifth, let it rise again:
  1. Place each mantou on parchment paper and place in a bamboo steamer under warm water to let rise for another 20 min or until texture is springy. Do not let it rise beyond 20 min as it will over-rise, which can lead to the mantou surface over-stretching during steaming, then collapsing after steaming, causing a wrinkled surface appearance.
Sixth, steam:
  1. Pour out the warm water, and replace with cold water in pan and steam slowly for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Keep lid on for 5 minutes before opening. If you open too soon, you risk the mantou surface collapsing, causing wrinkles on the surface.
  3. Enjoy while it’s warm. If you fridge it, be sure to steam for a few minutes again before eating. Or, wrap it with a wet paper towel, then microwaving it for 10-15 seconds.

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