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These bamboo buns came from China with Grandma. First we forage, then we cook

Left: Bamboo buns. Right: Kaitlyn Hennacy's grandmother, Yuehua Zhang.
Kaitlyn Hennacy
/
Collage by NPR
Left: Bamboo buns. Right: Kaitlyn Hennacy's grandmother, Yuehua Zhang.

All Things We're Cooking is a series featuring family recipes from you, our readers and listeners, and the special stories behind them. We'll continue to share more of your kitchen gems throughout the holidays.

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The arrival of spring always means a trip to the bamboo forest for Kaitlyn Hennacy and her family, followed by an afternoon making bamboo buns.

It's been this way for as long as Hennacy can remember — a tradition that started when her mother and grandmother discovered wild bamboo growing near the University of Maryland campus, where her mom was studying in the early 1990s. Hennacy said her grandmother, Yuehua Zhang, immigrated to the U.S. from Niansanli, China, where she grew up cooking with bamboo often.

"My grandma adapted recipes she had from China ... and it became a tradition every year — getting bamboo from the bamboo forest and putting it into these buns," said Hennacy, who lives in Columbia, Md., not far from the university. "It's a really great way to take what is seen as kind of a weed in the United States and turn it into something really delicious."

The trip to forage bamboo usually happens in late April, when the bamboo starts sprouting from the earth in small cones that are about 12 inches tall.

Each person in the group has their own bag to fill as they twist each cone out of the ground. But no one picks more bamboo than Grandma Zhang. The entire process of picking the bamboo and making the buns reminds Hennacy of how hardworking her grandma is — and it inspires her own work ethic.

"She turned 80 this year and she still hikes up a hill that is sometimes very muddy," Hennacy said. "And she fills a heavy sack with bamboo that she carries over her back. And she just doesn't complain or give up."

The family makes multiple dishes with the bamboo, but the buns are made first, Hennacy said, as they are best with fresh bamboo. But frozen works, too.

The bamboo has to be cleaned and blanched, then it's diced and mixed with the other filling ingredients. Hennacy learned how to make the buns by watching her grandma, but she had to work to measure everything and write it down because her grandmother cooks from memory.

Grandma Zhang is a master of the process, Hennacy said, and loves to make these for her family.

Hennacy said she and her family are fortunate to have Grandma Zhang living with them. She knows everyone's favorite foods and routinely fixes healthy meals — she even packs them to go when someone has to travel out of town.

"That's how caring of a person she is," Hennacy said. "She shows her love through cooking."

Bamboo Buns

Recipe submitted by Kaitlyn Hennacy
Columbia, Md.

Ingredients for the dough

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • Ingredients for the filling

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
  • 1/2 pound poached bamboo shoots, thawed if frozen
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon rice cooking wine
  • 2 tablespoons chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese pickled vegetables (optional)
  • Additional ingredient

  • neutral-flavored oil for frying
  • Directions

    Stir together the flour and yeast. Add the water and stir to incorporate.

    Knead the dough until smooth, adding more flour or water if necessary. It should be firm but not dry. Cover and let rise for 1 hour, until doubled in size.

    Prepare the filling by dicing the bamboo and mixing it with the rest of the filling ingredients.

    Knead the dough on a floured work surface. Form it into a long, smooth log. Cut or rip the log into 20 pieces and roll each into a rough ball shape about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

    Taking one ball of dough at a time, flatten it so that the edges are thinner than the center and you have a 3-inch diameter circle. Scoop about 2 tablespoons of filling into the center of the circle, then pinch the edges around the filling to enclose it.

    Place the parcel seam side down onto the work surface and press with the palm of your hand to flatten it into a 1 inch-thick disk. Repeat with each piece of dough.

    Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a large rimmed skillet over medium-high heat. Place as many bamboo-filled parcels into the pan as you can, making sure that there is at least a 1/4 inch gap between each.

    Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan and place a cover over the skillet. Cook until the water evaporates, 5-7 minutes. Flip over each bun and cook another 1-2 minutes until both sides are golden.

    Repeat with the remaining buns.

    Recipe makes 20 buns.

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