Mantou 饅頭 the Chinese Steamed Buns

In Zhou Dynasty  (771B.C.) a Chinese family was fermenting flour dough in their small house next to Yangtzé river. Bao the youngest child of five was staring at the river , deep in the river he saw a small bright stone, curious about what kind of precious he had deep on the river he tried to reach with his small hand, faster than he could ask for help a huge koi fish came and devoured him alive. Jin , the boy’s mother, that was close, saw the fish and threw herself into the river,searching everywhere for days in the deep of the river Jin  started transforming, her whole body was covered with scales, her hands started appearing like claws as well as her legs and a big tail was growing in the end of her back, after a year looking for her baby despair took place on Jin heart and flames sprouted from her throat, the water of Yangtzé started boiling and a cloud of vapor spread all over the village, the heat was so and so humid that all the fermented flour dough started to cook, and this was how Steamed bun was born. Untill today Jin still looking for her baby and we are still eating Mantou.

Yangtzé river is the biggest river in Asia, in recent years, the river has suffered from industrial pollution, agricultural run-off, siltation, and loss of wetland and lakes, which exacerbates seasonal flooding. Some sections of the river are now protected as nature reserves. If you travel to China don’t forget to pay tribute to this river.

But the name Mantou as another legend according to Ming Dynasty scholar Lang Ying, the original name for  Mantou was barbarian’s head. During the Three Kingdom Period, barbarians used human heads to worship gods.

Chancellor Zhuge Liang went on a battle to suppress the Southern barbarians and won. On his way back, he and his army had to cross the Lu River, which had big, stormy waves. The locals told them that using human heads as a sacrifice was the only way to cross the river.

Zhuge Liang couldn’t bear to kill innocent people, so instead he ordered his soldiers to kill some of their animals and put beef and lamb into flour dough in the shape of a head and steam them, and then throw them into the river as fake heads. Since they were fake heads to fool the river god, they got the name Cheat Heads. Others say they represented barbarian’s heads, so they were called Barbarian’s Heads.

Chinese legends are bright and always with a life lesson, but you must be thinking this bread his impossible to do but that is not quite true!

You just have to follow this recipe step by step and you will impress everyone at your home.


Shopping list!

  • 2 tablespoons Coconut oil
  • 300g Milk
  • 5 tablespoons of Sugar
  • 1/4 tablespoon of Salt
  • 500 g Flour t55
  • 7 g Yeast

Work, Work Work,Work, Work!

1-Heat the milk, sugar,salt and coconut oil. Do not boil.

2-Mix the yeast with the flour.

3-Mix all the ingredients and simply push, fold, slap and roll the dough around, over and over, for 4 or 5 minutes until you have a silky and elastic dough.
4-Make a ball with the dough and shape a rectangle, fold the dough like it’s a book  in the way that left end meet the right end in the middle(turn upside down in the way you see a smooth surface).

5-Roll the dough out to a long rectangle (roughly 3 palms), keeping the edges square and the sides straight.

6-Now with your hand spread a little bit of water on the dough surface, this will help to glue the dough for the next step.

7- Roll the dough up like you where making a curl tube like the image.


8-Cut into 7cm pieces of bread.

9-Let it prove for 45 min in a hot and  humid place.

10-Now to steam there are several ways you can do it, the best way is with a  bamboo steamer (you can find this in pub shop with a good price or go to your local chinatown and you will find tons with great prices) in a more Occidental way you can find this awesome product in Ikea for less than 3€ (Ikea Steamer insert) that will give you  a similar result.

11-On the steamer you put the baking parchment paper and spread with coconut oil or any oil you have, just to stop it from getting stuck.

12- When the water is boiling that means we are ready to put the steamer inside of the pot.

13-Let the bread bake for 13 min and take it out and leave to cool down.

14-You can fried them or eat  just steam.

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There is no need to make the curl shape, that is just one of tons of shapes you can give to this bread. You can also fill the bread with meat or vegetables or even Nutella!!! Use your imagination and don’t forget to share your Mantou! Here some examples i found on Pinterest.


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Written by Paula de Almeida

Edited by Gonçalo Marques


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