It took me a while to accept that fact that I did not come to China to eat good bread. I came to eat dumplings, noodles, pot-stickers, and stir-fry. I came to sample the multitudinous kinds of tofu, and to try each of the 8 (or 4, or 9, or 10, depending on whom you’re asking) famous Chinese Cuisines. But I did not come to eat bread.
Nonetheless, every time I pass by a Chinese bakery, I am filled with pangs of longing for plain, oven baked bread. For that elegantly simple combination of flour, water, salt and yeast, that is both glorified in haute-cuisine and is still a non-ironic staple for hundreds of millions.
Chinese bread is not so simple. On many occasions, I’ve sampled bread expecting to eat something like a French baguette, only to have my tongue shout in alarm as what it tasted was sweeter than a lollipop. One time, we fellows bought what we thought was a sweet-bread to make french toast, and discovered that the sweet outside of the bread was complimented by a savory meat-filled core. It was not the best breakfast.
So, when the craving hits, it’s up to us to recreate the French peasant experience in rural China.
First, you gotta get your flour. Out here, forget whole grains, rye, or spelt; You’ve got one option: 面粉, mian fen, or bread flour, which everyone here uses to make 拉面 pulled noodles. We get ours across the street.
Salt is easy. Except for the past two weeks, when every store sold out of Iodized salt because of a national frenzy of people believing that iodine will help prevent radiation poisoning from the Japanese fallout.
As for water, certainly don’t use the tap. We get ours in 20 liter jugs that are delivered to the high school in quantities enough to hydrate the two thousand plus students.
And yeast, I brought a jar back from America to make things easy. But, yeast is a wild organism. Soon, I’ll try cultivating a little of the Xiuning variety and see happens.
Ovens are in short supply here. They are not a traditional Chinese cooking method, so electric ovens are tiny and expensive.
After a lot of love (which in the dead of winter involved maintaining a double layered steam bath for the dough as it was rising), we get the final product. Bread. Even a little sour. Here’s a picture of the most recent success story.
When you yourself come here, you too will have the opportunity to sample some Chinese baking. It’s not bad, as long as you’re expectations are appropriate.
Ask not for a baguette, and you shall receive.