Learning to make Japanese food can be a roller coaster of emotions. After the ridiculous time I had making the perfectly simple okonomiyaki, I decided to move on to the much more complicated nikuman. This might sound to some like an anime superhero but it is actually the Japanese version of steamed pork puns...I mean buns.
The dish originated in China, but I was unable to nail down when exactly it made its way to Japan. Wether it was in an early wave of cultural sharing or during the food boom of the early Meiji is a mystery to me. I would hazard though that it was introduced in the late 1800s when Chinese workers brought a whole new variety of food to the recently opened cities of Japan. However it happen, I'm just glad it did, because this is one of the tastiest meals I have made yet!
Since it's appearance in Japan nikuman has become vastly popular and I've heard it described several times as "the Japanese sandwich". In the colder months you can find them either in connivence stores or get them from street vendors. Along with a few variants like kare-man (curry) and Anman (sweet adzuki beans) these easy to eat on the go snacks can be just the ticket to tide you over between meals. Alternatively, you can make them at home and stuff yourself full.
I found this fantastic recipe a few years ago on NoRecipes.com and have made it twice in the past. However, this was back when I wasn't eating pork, so I used ground turkey, which was still pretty good. This time, I wanted to make it the right way. He tells you to use a mixture of ground pork and pork belly, but as I have mentioned before, my local grocery stores all lack this basic part of a pigs anatomy. All ground pork it would have to be. Of course I don't know how it would have been if I had used the mix, but it's hard to imagine it being better than it was.
The trick to nikuman, as I have found it, is to make them on a day that is the perfect temperature. If it is too cold, your dough won't rise right, if it's too hot you will be in agony when the whole house fills with steam. The day I chose was a wonderful early fall day, about sixty five degrees and sunny. I woke up in the morning and knew that it was the perfect time to treat myself to this meal.
Somewhere along the road I misplaced my bread hook so I had to kneed by hand. This isn't really a tragedy for me though, as I used to be the bread baker for a few years at the towns best bakery. My old boss taught me all the tricks and soon I had a beautiful dough. Bare in mind that it is sticky as heck and the recipe's suggestion that you use parchment paper while working with the dough is totally sound. Once before, I neglected to have any parchment paper in the house and was practically in tears by the end of the day. Not this time though, because I was prepared.
Nikuman are easy, but they take a long time, so it's best to do it on an open day. Once they're out of the steamer, you're going to want to eat one right off the bat because they're best hot. The first thing that will hit you is the smell, which is so scrumptious that the mere memory is enough to make me wish I had eaten something before writing this post. When you take a bite you will discover a perfect blend of savory meat and sweet, chewy bread. With the classic light hand of the Japanese seasoners, the bread had only a few ingredients (not even salt) making it a pure flavor that doesn't detract from the pork. Where as the meat is gingery, bursting with onions, and has the tang of oyster and soy sauce.
Now that you're done with your first nikuman you're going to want to eat another one, it's okay, don't be shy. These fantastic buns are great for sharing or hoarding, they can even be frozen and thawed for a fantastic launch. After I made all my buns I had a little filling left over so I cooked it up with some rice from the night before. It was really good, so if you ever want the flavors without so much work, it is a wonderful stir-fry dinner.
I dream of a day that I can go to Japan and eat all the different types of delicious street food (alas, my wallet weepeth). But in the mean time, I am enjoying trying out the recipes for myself. I hope that you will join me in attempting to recreate a little Japanese flavor in your own home.
Until next time, keep steaming up the kitchen!