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Making Steamed Buns

Did you know this delicious dish was invented to prevent a famous leader from having to behead 49 people?


There are only two days left before Spring Festival. Do you think you’ve finished preparing all the food? Tofu, meat, and chicken are obliviously not enough. So, today and tomorrow, people are going to finish their last and most important food— mantou (馒头 mántou). The 28th and 29th days of the last month in the lunar calendar are the days for making mantou, or steamed buns.

The legend for mantou dates back to the age of the Three Kingdoms. A fortune teller told Kongming to sacrifice 49 human heads in order to bless his soldiers. But Kongming found it too cruel, and couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then he came up with an idea: use flour to make head-like buns as a substitute for the sacrifice.

The first step of making steamed buns is to leaven dough. In Chinese it is called 发面 fā miàn; the character 发 is the same one in 发财 fācái (make a fortune), which makes making mantou an auspicious endeavor. Also, the making of steamed buns (蒸馒头 zhēng mántou), reminds people of the process of becoming more and more prosperous (蒸蒸日上 zhēngzhēngrìshàng).

Winter is pretty cold. As a result, in the past, the dough of the steamed buns might require a whole day to be leavened properly, since the quality of the leavened dough determines the taste of steamed buns. After this is done, skillful housewives would turn the big loaf of dough into delicate buns of different shapes or even colors, such as the “smashed bean bun”, the “rabbit or hedgehog steamed bun” and steamed buns with a bright red toppings.

Making steamed buns is a big deal in families, and only adults have right to take part in it. If the steamed buns get ruptured in the process of making them, no one in the family is allowed to say, “馒头裂了” (“The bun has cracked”). Instead, people say, “馒头开花了” (“The bun has blossomed”) because it sounds nicer–that’s important around Spring Festival.

So dust off your cooking skills and break out the flour. Spring Festival is just two days away; you’d better start preparing your mantou now!

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