I’ve grown to love shaomai, the little folded bulbs filled with sticky rice, mushrooms, and soy sauce. However, it’s almost impossible finding them vegetarian because they traditionally have a bit of minced meat in the filling. Living in Nanjing, the only place I can get meatless ones is at a Buddhist Temple, Jimingsi. I have to travel about an hour and a half across town, and then climb to the top of a hill to arrive at the temple’s café which overlooks the city wall and Xuanxu Lake. It’s a lovely setting to enjoy a few shaomai, but this trek doesn’t make it an easy snack for me.
I decided to take matters into my own hands and learn how to make them on my own. My student’s mom in Shanghai has taught me how to cook a number of dishes, and her vegetarian shaomai are fabulous. She is almost a vegetarian herself – a flexitarian – because of observing the treatment of animals when she was “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
I had enjoyed her shaomai a few years ago made with an alternative wrapping of cellophane-thin soy paper, but this time cooking together a week and a half ago, we made them with the traditional dough wrappers.
This recipe has no fixed amounts, like typical Chinese home cooking. I’ve never seen measuring cups or measuring spoons in a Chinese home. If you want to try these yourself, just follow along with the method, and adjust the amounts as needed. This time my friend added too much soy sauce, so she then scrambled a few more eggs for the filling to dilute the flavor. Problem solved.
Start by making sticky rice. She made this before I arrived. Sticky rice requires a good deal less water than regular steamed rice.
Mince several mushrooms and woodear mushrooms, AKA black fungus. That day she also added minced carrots and a local Shanghai wild green called “jicai.” You could substitute a little minced spinach other another green if you want to add a little green nutrition.
Next, scramble several eggs and add them to the mixture. To make Chinese scrambled eggs, heat oil in a very hot wok. Beat the eggs with a little salt and a splash of shaoxing wine. When the oil is almost smoking, pour in the eggs. They will make a loud whoosh sound because of the high heat. Stir gently until cooked. Add the scrambled eggs to the rice and mushroom mixture and stir well.
Next comes the soy sauce. Shanghai’s cuisine is known for dishes braised with soy sauce, and Shanghai folks have several types of soy sauce in their kitchens for different uses. She used a heavier variety of soy sauce used for braising, and boiled it a bit in a wok before adding it to the rice mixture. Nothing was measured, but I would guess it was about a cup of soy sauce.
Once it was all mixed, as I mentioned before, she tasted it and determined it was too salty, so she scrambled 4-5 more eggs to dilute the flavor.
Now it’s time to fill them. Because shaomai come from Shanghai, which is considered southern China, there isn’t a “flour” tradition like northern China. This means that folks in southern China don’t make dough from scratch at home. Shaomai wrappers are all purchased at the market. Same thing goes for wontons, which are also from Shanghai. Shaomai wrappers are circular, and are slightly larger than dumpling wrappers.
The sticky rice filling is quite sticky so it’s easy to use chopsticks to fill the shaomai. Use about 2-3 tablespoons of the mixture per shaomai. Gather the edges up and make uniform pleats. Then press the top of the filling down into the center. You want the bottom to bulge, “like a fat tummy, ” she told me. After pressing the filling down and encouraging the lower belly of the shaomai to swell, you might add another teaspoon of filling on top. Rotate the shaomai in your hands almost like you are working on a pottery wheel to shape it.
She repeatedly told me they are easier to make than wontons, but hers were consistently prettier than mine. I need more practice with the muscle memory of rotating and the art of getting the perfect shaomai shape. Our tops were also wider than the ones sold outside.
Arrange all of the shaomai on a board.
Steam the shaomai in a steamer. If you don’t have a nice steamer, you might have a simple vegetable steamer that could work. They steam about 20 minutes, or until the wrappers have changed in color, and are a bit translucent.
Because shaomai have soy sauce in the filling, they have enough flavor to be enjoyed plain. They’re also often eaten with a splash of good dark vinegar. They can be served as a snack, or as the starch component of a larger meal, paired with a few simple vegetable dishes. That day at lunch we also had stirfried bamboo with water chestnuts, and a simple soup of vermicelli noodles and slivered taro root.