I chide myself for this utterly cliché desire but at the same time, I wholly claim it: nothing satisfies me more than seeing my children eat a good breakfast. In Shanghai, I go to great lengths to serve the local breakfast favorite: mantou. But it is not easy to get it right.
I’m a modern woman. Part of me thinks, “They won’t starve!” if they head off to school without much to eat. But the old-fashioned, mother-hen part of me loves to tick off the first line of the morning’s to-do list with a “They’ve started the day right!”
My kids don’t make it easy. While both of them were born and raised in Shanghai, they don’t like the same things. My daughter prefers a Western-style meal with toast, eggs and fruit. My son, on the other hand, goes in phases of Asian-style eating. He’d be in heaven if I woke up and made him a fresh bowl of Pho, but even my best intentions can’t induce my making beef broth from scratch at an early hour. He’s gone through a spell of miso soup and these days, it’s back to his Chinese roots: the mantou.
White, fluffy steamed buns, in my opinion, nothing is as bland as this doughy concoction. Mantou are not filled with anything and are virtually tasteless. Yet, this is what my son desires so this is what I endeavor to provide.
Shanghai wakes pretty early and if I want to find freshly made mantou, I don’t have to go very far. I’m up anyway to take the dog out and get lunches ready so I’ve taken to the streets to find freshly steamed mantou. Smiling with how local I feel, the dog and I walk down a back alley where the only traffic is two-wheeled or pedestrian. We come across a couple whose stall has a line already. The meat or veggie-stuffed baozi smell tasty but I don’t even bother with these. Knowing my kids, trying something new, especially at breakfast, never goes over well. I buy 2 enormous mantou for the equivalent of 50 cents and then head home, towing the pup and bag of buns with me.
“Not sweet enough”
My son, who has heaved himself out of bed and is sitting at the table with a mug of hot chocolate (a terrible pairing with a Chinese breakfast I think to myself) takes a few unenthusiastic bites of the fresh mantou and gets up to leave the table. “You don’t like it?” I ask in surprise. “Not sweet enough,” is the sleepy reply.
And now we get into the nitty-gritty of mantou; apparently some have a little sugar, some a little salt, some have no taste at all. To me, they are just big fluffy balls of plain dough but, to my connoisseur, there are minute differences.
It’s sad to report that lately I’ve found the “perfect” (according to my son) mantou on sale in packs of four at our local grocery store. Highly unromantic to buy 8 or 12 at a time to warm up in the mornings for my son, I’ve still got my eye out for a good street-mantou. The dog and I will keep up our early morning search.