Japanese convenience stores have impressively good “to-go” food. Seriously. Nothing like the crap in American convenience stores. One nice alternative to all the delicious sandwiches and pre-made hot dishes are nikuman, which make a great snack or a couple of them as a light meal. What’s really cool is there are several kinds, including curry-man and the traditional version I made here.
There are many nikuman recipes floating around—with most of the bun/bread recipes being nearly identical. I based mine on the one from Just One Cookbook, chosen mostly because of the number of nikuman I planned to make (10). The difference in recipes is primary the type of fillings, most of which are fairly similar for the “traditional” meat filling. Mine is very loosely based on Just One Cookbook’s, with major adjustments. These do take a bit of time and effort, but they’re well worth it.
Despite my minor pessimism about these turning out good, they really did! The consistency of the bread was perfect, and the meat filling was moist and delicious. If you don’t have a steamer, there looks to be a viable alternative. Check that out here.
Note that you could make the filling ahead of time and refrigerate it for a couple of days before using.
What you’ll need for the bread
- 300g all-purpose flour
- 0.25t salt
- 1t instant yeast
- 1t baking powder
- 2T granulated sugar
- 1T neutral oil
- 160-170ml water (start with the lesser amount, then add more, if needed)
What you’ll need for the meat filling
- 2 or 3 dried mushrooms (shiitake are most flavorful, but others work, too)
- 1 or 2 T minced onion, pressed with a paper towel to absorb some of the liquid
- 1-2 oz green cabbage leaves, coarsely chopped
- About 0.75 lb. ground pork
- 1” piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1t sugar
- 1Tbsp potato starch or cornstarch (don’t skip this, it will absorb any liquid that cooks out of the filling)
- 1t soy sauce (sweet soy sauce or kecap manis works, too, for a sweeter flavor)
- 1T sake
- 1T sesame oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1t mushroom powder (optional)
What to do for the buns
Add the flour, sugar baking powder and yeast to a large bowl and mix everything together. Add the 1T of oil to the 160 ml of lukewarm water and gradually add the water to the flour mixture while mixing it until everything is incorporated and you’ve got the beginnings of a dough.
Turn the dough out to a lightly flour-dusted work surface and form the dough into a ball. Once formed, knead the dough for about 10-15 minutes, until the dough is very smooth, and a lot of gluten strands have formed—yeah, it’s a long time. When it’s ready, reform the dough into a ball and put it into a large, greased bowl. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for about an hour—it will double in size.
Now you can make the filling, if you didn’t do it earlier.
What to do for the filling
Soak the dried mushrooms in about a half-cup of water. Put something on them to ensure they’re submerged and let them soak for about 15 minutes. When they’re rehydrated, cut off any tough stems and mince the rest. Press them with a paper towel to absorb any extra water. Set aside.
Spread about a half-teaspoon of salt onto the cabbage to draw out moisture. Let it sit for a few minutes.
Add the pork, onions and mushrooms to a large bowl. Press the cabbage between paper towels to absorb moisture drawn out by the salt. Add the cabbage to the bowl. Mix all these ingredients together—don’t be afraid to use your hands.
Now add the ginger, sugar, starch, pepper, mushroom powder (if using) and the three liquids to the bowl: soy sauce, sake, and sesame oil. Incorporate all the ingredients into the pork mixture with your hands until everything is evenly combined. Set aside or refrigerate until the dough is ready.
What to do to assemble the nikuman
Now it’s time to get the bread ready. After it has doubled in size, lightly dust a work surface with flour and divide the dough ball in half. For each half, roll it into a short log—if possible, without tapered ends—maybe about 7 or 8 inches long. Cut the logs into 5 equal-size pieces. Once you have 10 roughly equal-sized pieces, cover them with plastic so they don’t dry out while you’re assembling. Let them rest for 10 minutes. Then it’s time for the final assembly.
While the dough is resting, if you want, you could separate the filling into 10 portions, weighing each to ensure some level of uniform weight.
For each, nikuman, take a portioned ball of dough and flatten it into your palm. Put it on a lightly-floured work surface and with a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a disk about 4-5 or so inches wide. It’s hard to do, but if possible, try to thin the disk out toward the edges. You’ll have to rotate the dough as you roll it to make it into a circular disk. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round. It’s going to get scrunched up anyway.
Add a portion of the filling to the center of the disk. Now thinking of the disk as a clock, pull up a flap of dough at each the 12:00 and 6:00 positions and pinch them together over the top of the filling. Do the same at the 3:00 and 9:00 positions. Now pull up any remaining areas of dough and secure them to the top of the bun. Pinch all the flaps together and give it a twist, if you wish. This is the most basic way to seal these up. There are definitely more beautiful ways to do this, but I went with the quick and expedient route. You can find other methods online if you wish for a more ornate-looking nikuman.
Now it’s time to cook. Prepare your steamer and cut pieces of parchment paper into pieces large enough to protect the bottom of each nikuman, then set each nikuman on a piece of paper. If you’re cooking all the nikuman in a couple of batches, make sure to cover them while waiting to cook. If you’re not cooking all of them, wrap up the extras in plastic wrap and refrigerate or even freeze for later use. If freezing them, thaw before cooking.
When your steamer is ready with boiling water, place the nikuman on the steamer tray, leaving a couple of inches between them—they’ll expand a bit during cooking. Steam them for 15 minutes, until the interiors have reached at least 145, the safe temperature to which pork should be cooked.
When done, remove the nikuman from the steamer with tongs and serve hot. Uneaten cooked nikuman can be rewarmed in the microwave, though the bread will lose some of its consistency.