Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Wow! Wo Pau

To those who know me well, I’ve always been something of a scatterbrain. Especially when it comes to remembering names and faces.

Food is a different matter. I almost never forget a smell or flavor, a sauce, a seasoning, herb or spice.

A case in point is the ‘wo pau’. I ate this pau (meat bun) when I was 5. It was a first, and only, encounter, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. And I’m in my early 50s.

It was the 1960s; and the place was the Nam Tin (Southern Sky) Restaurant, located at Nam Tin Hotel and Nightclub in Chinatown, Singapore; more familiar today as the Yue Hwa Department Store at the junction of Eu Yen Sang Road and Upper Cross Street. You’d never guess looking at this building today, that it was one of the tallest – and most glamorous -- of its time.

Built around the turn of the 20th century and designed by Swan and Maclaren, this 6-storey building was the first Chinese hotel in Singapore to have a lift! It catered largely to Chinese travelers, and its nightclub on the rooftop attracted the wealthy and the socialites of the Chinese community in Singapore. I remember, as a kid, watching the grownups frown and shake their heads at the dancing girls and hostesses of the nightclub.

Reunited with an old friend after 40 years.
A Hong Kong version found at Lin Heung Kui, Sheung Wan
I remember too the building’s classical façade, which appeared looming and gigantic to me as a kid. It was ash gray with strong horizontal lines, angular arches, and simple cornices. It had balconies with steel-frame windows and European-style grills and railings. Looking at those windows and balconies sometimes made me sad, for they seemed to tell the story of the hotel’s ups and downs. In good times, the windows would blaze with light and sounds from the grand dinners and balls that went on behind them. In the last declining years of the hotel, the same windows and balconies would be hung with the washings of occupants who were no longer the elite of the land, but shoestring travelers.

Ran into another version in Meldrum Walk,
 Johor Bahru, recently.
During the 60s, the Nam Tin Restaurant filled the left portion of the hotel on its two bottom storeys. A delightful old lift with collapsible iron grilles linked the two floors. I loved the restaurant’s lower floor because I could watch the waiters carry dim sum out of the kitchen. In those days, dim sum wasn’t pushed around on trolleys or steamed-upon-order; instead the waiters would make their rounds carrying the steaming little baskets on a huge bamboo tray.

Although I ate regularly at the restaurant, I only saw the wo pau once -- shaped like a puffy white bowl with the meat stuffing exposed. A raw egg was placed on top of the meat to act as a lid and keep it moist. It took lots of skill, for sure, to shape the dough-bowl without collapsing it – something I tried but couldn’t do when I made my own wo pau. So I decided that the end justifies the means, and cheated by placing a bowl underneath to shape the dough.

When the hotel and restaurant finally closed, I went on a quest for the wo pau. Most dim sum chefs I described it to would wave their hands at me and accuse me of making up stories! More than 40 years passed before I finally saw something resembling it at Lin Heung Lo, a restaurant in Hong Kong.

Since then, I’ve come across a couple of versions of the still-very-rare wo pau. I saw one in Johor Baru made from glutinous rice, and another at Alexandra Village in Singapore made from two types of dough.

Wo Pau 窝包

Basic Yeast Dough  (makes 6)

Ingredients ‘A’ :
Pau flour                      250g, sifted
Salt                              ¼  tsp
Instant yeast               ¼  tbsp
Sugar                          40 g
Water                          120 ml
Shortening                  1½ tbsp

Ingredient ‘B’ :
Baking powder            ½ tbsp

Meat Filling:
Pork                             150 g
Chicken                       150 g
Chinese sausage        1, cut into 6 pieces
Dried mushroom         20 g, soaked in warm water and drained
Oyster sauce              1 tbsp
Chinese wine              ½ tbsp.
Corn flour                    2 tsp
Sesame oil                  1 tsp
Hard-boiled egg          1, cut into 6 slices

Method :
  1. Mix all of ingredients ‘A’ together and knead into a smooth and elastic dough.
  2. Cover with a piece of wet cloth and leave to prove until it has doubled its bulk.
  3. Sift baking powder on top of the dough and knead well to distribute the baking powder until the dough is smooth again.
  4. Cover and rest for 15 minutes before shaping.
  5. Shape the dough into a log and divide the log into 6 pieces equally.
  6. Take one portion, using a rolling pin, shape into a circular shape. Place it onto a bowl and press it against the side of the bowl.
  7. Fill the bowl with the meat filling.
  8. Steam the pau for 20 minutes.

Meat filling:
  1. Mix all ingredients well, except the egg, and marinate it for at least 30 minutes.