These crispy buns are inspired by the Uyghur baked buns, kao bao zi, a popular dish from Xinjiang, located in the far northwest of China, adjacent to Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was brought to Beijing and is commonly served at Muslim and kosher restaurants, where you’ll find some of the best noodle soups. The traditional version is usually made with lamb and onion and then baked on the walls of a wood-fired oven. When I converted it to a plant-based dish, I used the original seasonings paired with potato, carrot, and onion, staples of the Xinjiang region.
Place the flour in a large bowl and slowly drizzle it with 3/4 cup (180 milliliters) of water. Use a pair of chopsticks (or a fork) to whisk the flour until the water is fully absorbed and it forms soft dough flakes.
Dust both hands with dry flour and gather the dough flakes together until a dough forms. Transfer the dough to a work surface dusted with flour. Knead until it turns smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes. The dough should be soft to touch but not sticky. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest at room temperature for one hour, or until ready to use. If resting the dough for more than three hours, transfer it to the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat two tablespoons of the peanut oil until hot. Add the potato and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges turn golden, four minutes or so. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, two minutes. Add the cumin, salt, sugar, and Sichuan pepper and cook and stir for another minute, until the spices are evenly coated. Taste a piece of potato and add a pinch of salt if needed. Transfer the contents of the pan to a large plate to cool.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees Celsius; gas mark 8). Line a baking tray with Gefen Parchment Paper and spray (or brush) a thin layer of vegetable oil on the parchment.
In a small bowl, combine the milk and maple syrup. Place the remaining two tablespoons peanut oil in another small bowl.
Lightly grease a work surface with vegetable oil and transfer the dough to it. Divide the dough into two equal-size pieces, roll each piece into a long log, then divide each log into five equal-size pieces for 10 buns total. Pinch the cut sides of each piece of dough together, then roll each piece into a ball. Cover the balls with plastic wrap while you work on one at a time to prevent them from drying out. Press down on a dough ball, then roll it with a floured rolling pin into a thin rectangle about eight inches (20 centimeters) long and five inches (12.5 centimeters) wide. Roll the edges extra thin with the center thicker so that the buns will have an even dough wrap once assembled.
Place 1/4 cup (60 grams) of filling in the center of the dough. Fold the long edges of the dough over the filling until they overlap. Fold and overlap the short ends so that the dough seals the filling inside. Press gently and place on the prepared baking tray, sealed side down. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent it drying out and repeat with the remaining dough balls and filling.
Brush each bun with a thin layer of the milk–maple syrup wash on top and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until the surface turns golden brown. Let the buns cool for five minutes, then transfer to a large serving plate. Serve warm.
To store baked buns, place in an airtight container in the refrigerator for three to four days or in the freezer for up to three months. To reheat, warm them in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius/ gas mark 4) for 15 minutes. If frozen, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
Recipe excerpted from Chinese Homestyle: Everyday Plant-Based Recipes for Takeout, Dim Sum, Noodles, and More with permission from the publisher. Buy the book on Amazon!