I had never made siomai or shu mai before this attempt, simply ordered it at reputable Chinese restaurants with dimsum offerings. Over the past 45 years, I, and later Mrs. MM and I, have eaten siomai in several places in Chinatown, New York (where at one point it was said some of the best Chinese food was to be had since China wasn’t so open to the West) to tons of places in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, and anywhere else we chanced upon to visit that had large local Chinese communities. I have no idea what constitutes the most original siomai, but here are my personal thoughts on what I seek out. I like shu mai with a good balance of wrapper and filling. I like the wrapper to be thinnish, soft and moist, and the shu mai served straight out of the steamer, not overcooked. The meat/shrimp is flavorful on its own, but better with the requisite chili dipping sauce. I understand the desire to have it in a “one-bite” size, as picking them up with chopsticks, dipping them in chili oil and popping them into one’s mouth is so fast and convenient. And finally, I have always enjoyed them with other dim sum dishes, not as a viand with rice.
I couldn’t find BettyQ’s posted recipe for shu mai (it’s in a 29 November 2008 post, comments section, thanks ECC for subsequently pointing that out!) yesterday, so I hadn’t consulted it. But I did recall that another reader from Cebu, Wahini, said her mom used some chinese sausage to garnish their shu mai, and I made use of that idea. Here is what I did for the maiden and extremely successful attempt at siomai. Into a large stainless bowl I added 1 kilo of coarsely ground pork, not overly lean pork, perhaps 20% fat content. Had I planned to make this earlier, I would have purchased some pork and minced it with a cleaver by hand… which I am certain provides a nicer overall finished texture. To this I added a handful of rehydrated and finely chopped dried chinese mushrooms, a handful of minced water chestnuts, two handfuls of minced carrots, some minced shallots, minced green onions, minced chinese sausage, several tablespoons of light soy sauce, a tablespoon or two of sesame oil, a couple of tablespoons of shaoxing rice wine, salt and pepper to taste. I used plastic gloves to mix this well by hand and mashed it and threw it against the bowl until well combined. I understand the smashing does something to the proteins in the meat that enhances the texture and flavor. I didn’t have any shrimp in the house or I would definitely have added several handfuls of that. Finally, I added an egg and several tablespoons of cornstarch and mixed that up well. Let this mixture rest in the fridge for at least an hour or two for the flavors to meld…
Place the meat mixture into a disposable plastic piping bag or a recycled large ziplock bag and cut off one corner. Squeeze the filling onto the circular wrappers (buy the most expensive ones in the grocery, at say PHP1 each) and pleat the wrappers around the filling. I wet the edges of the wrapper with water to help them stick together. My pleating left something to be desired, but if you are curious, there are several sites on the net that show you how to pleat your shu mais better than these ones…
I thought our shu mai’s were rather modest sized, but once cooked, they were definitely bigger than a single bite. I am of two minds on this… I like the smaller ones for ease of eating, but the bigger ones seem to stay more moist and flavorful and have a good balance of wrapper to filling. Do what pleases you, I suppose. Oh, and I added a piece of chinese sausage to the top of each siomai, for a bit of color and flavor.
Bamboo steamers have to be more authentic than aluminium ones, but use the latter if that’s all you’ve got. Bamboo absorbs some of the moisture and steam and a bit more escapes as well, so I think the shu mai ends up less soggy or waterlogged from the condensed water dripping off of the cover of the steamer. I also added some greaseproof paper to the bottom of the steamer to prevent the siomai from sticking. If you are wondering about the rather uniform holes, I used an office puncher to make them. :)
The mixture yielded 57 pieces of shu mai. Total cost, roughly PHP350 for the pork, wrappers, sausages, mushrooms, etc. That works out to PHP6.14 per piece, with no labor, gas, rent, VAT and other taxes, utilities, depreciation of equipment, packing or sauce/condiments imputed. You would have to sell these for some PHP18-20 per piece to make money in a commercial setting! So how some street vendors sell their versions for PHP5 is WELL AND TRULY BEYOND ME. Even if their soimai are smaller, and you eliminate all the other fancy ingredients, these have to cost a good PHP3.50-4.00 per piece just for the food raw materials! What about labor, packaging, sauces, kalamansi, etc.? Hmmm…. Let’s just say cheaper is NOT necessarily a sign of it being better.
I used a larger bamboo steamer to cook the shu mai right side up (two photos up above), and as an experiment, I cooked some shu mai upside down in a smaller bamboo steamer.
The steamers went into a wok with boiling water that steamed the shu mai. Roughly 18-20 minutes was just about right for the size that I made. Take care not to overcook, and plan these so that they go straight to the table and waiting diners when they are done.
They turned out pretty darn good looking, if you ask me. :) They were moist, soft and glistening with moisture and fat. This batch was cooked facing up, and they looked gorgeous. They tasted very good as well. Perhaps lacking a touch of salt, but that was easily remedied with a dipping sauce of chili oil, soy sauce and kalamansi.
These ones were cooked upside down, and you can tell by the flatter top.
Photographed side by side, the one on the left is cooked upside down, notice where the fat or oils are on the wrapper… while the shu mai on the right are cooked right side up, and the oils pooled at the bottom of the shu mai. Mrs. MM and I both agreed that we preferred the shu mai cooked right side up, as it was more flavorful, probably due to the increased oil/fat in each piece. The ones cooked upside down were good as well, but just not as good as the ones cooked right side up.
An essential part of the pinoy siomai experience is to dip it into some chili oil or a mixture of chili oil, soy sauce and for many Filipinos, freshly squeezed kalamansi juice.
This first attempt was a huge hit, perhaps an 8.5/10.0 and we and the crew wiped out all of the siomai! Some notes on making them better the next time around… I might try a slightly smaller wrapper, and a touch less filling, for a truly one-bite sized morsel. Several recipes I have read suggest adding a touch of sugar to the mixture, so if you want to, add a teaspoon or two of sugar. I don’t use MSG, but I can see how others who do might add a pinch or two. With good base ingredients and careful salting, I see no need for flavor enhancers. Some folks also like to garnish with a single green pea, which I personally find just a bit odd and out of place, but I am not a siomai expert by any means. Bettyq’s secret ingredient is a bit of five spice powder, which would make the shu mai quite fragrant, and clearly Chinese… perhaps as it should be. Some folks use only egg whites as a binder, not whole eggs. So the bottom line is, was this worth the effort to make at home? The answer is a definite YES. It’s quite easy to do, and you could whip up say a double batch in less than 1-1.5 hours total work time. Cook whatever you need and freeze the rest for another day or two. Now, as for commercially sold siomai that are less than PHP10 a piece, I would really have to marvel how they do that if they are using decent to good ingredients to begin with… Sometimes, if it seems too good to be true, it IS TOO GOOD to be true. :)