本帮烤麸 Shanghai Style Baked Wheat Gluten
Pinyin: běn bāng kǎo fū
Third in line behind rice and corn in terms of overall annual product, wheat is one of the most important staple foods cultivated today. Developed in the fertile crescent and domesticated as early as 9,000 B.C wheat can be used for bread, noodles, alcohol, biofuel, and even building materials. China produces nearly a sixth of the world’s global wheat supply, almost double the amount produced by the USA. Meanwhile Kyrgyzstan consumes the most wheat per capita at 239 kg annually, while the global average is just 67 kg.
Wheat is primarily composed of wheat gluten and wheat starch. Separated from the starch by rinsing in cold water, the gluten contains 80% of the wheat’s protein. Gluten is responsible for the chewiness found in bagels and other baked goods.
Throughout China and Japan and more recently into the Western world, wheat gluten, know also as seitan, is used in the creation of vegetarian foods and particularly vegetarian meat. In China wheat gluten is commonly fried, steamed, or baked resulting in widely varying textures and shapes.
Kǎo fū (烤麸）as shown in the dish above is a baked version of wheat gluten that is first leavened (most likely using baking powder) and then baked or steamed. The wheat gluten takes on a spongy texture littered with air bubbles. The sauce in this dish is made using sugar, soy sauce, and star anise. Boiled peanuts cloud ear mushrooms and shitake mushrooms are then added to the mix to make this Shanghai appetizer. Here’s a recipe to try at home.
Often served warm, but just as likely to be served cold or at room temperature, the wheat gluten cubes absorb the sauces during the cooking process. The spongy texture is unique but not off putting, and when combined with the soft mushrooms and slightly crunchy peanuts a whole array of textures serve to stimulate the mouth. When the dish is served warm, the sweetness explodes, but when served cold the flavors are more subdued. Think of it as the difference between eating warm chocolate cake and eating chilled chocolate cake, both are good but in different ways.
This is a great dish for kids, and those with a sweet tooth. Appealing to a wide audience, especially a Western audience, this makes for a great appetizer when finicky eaters are likely.
Sometimes eating is an adventure and other times adventure isn’t really what’s called for. On those less adventurous days consider this dish as an option. Enjoy.