The Steam Bun Shell Game

When I think of steam buns, Tokyo comes to mind. By all rights it should be Hong Kong. My first experience with them was at a small park on a cold March day in Kowloon. The Chinese vendor offered steamed rice balls on sticks, sweet or soy flavored, and what they call “sticky buns.” I watched a few people buy them and realized there how many variations there were. Some had a dark paste inside them and others were filled with meat and mushroom shavings.

I couldn’t make up my mind so I bought one of each. My fingers were the worse for wear because the bags were only big enough to cover them, not carry them.

Years later in Tokyo, one of my classmates from university invited me out to an ice rink. (We have roller rinks in Micronesia and how different could skating on ice be? Plenty, it turned out!) I wish someone had shown me the proper way to tighten up my skates. When we took a break my friend suggested a concession stand snack. She bought a steam bun. I asked her what type it was and she said “sweet bean” through her teeth. Clearly the bun was still too hot to eat. I wanted one and my Japanese wasn’t so good so I just said “beans” to the vendor at the ice rink.

I suppose I could find something very similar in Hong Kong or even Seoul. There is a smoked smell in the Tokyo steam buns that I hadn’t associated with desserts except when they were from the Philippines. I loved the Bibinka’s steamed sweet rice and tapioca, wrapped in leaves that were heated over an open fire. Come to think of it, my Thai friend brought me back a Thai version made of steamed rice and tapioca after Thai New Years, so maybe food changes over the borders and stays similar at the same time.

Tokyo is getting cooler and I cannot think of anything more enjoyable than walking through the changing colors with a sweet bun or a meat bun in my hand. Today, as I walked back from a convenience store that had two glass cases filled with steam buns, I realized the clerk didn’t separate them, nor mark my selection of buns that I was taking home.

I had eight. Two were orange, so those were pizza flavored. The two with dimples on top were the premium meat ones. The smooth ones were the cheaper meat options and the buns with a stamped Japanese icon on the top could only be sweet bean. I was suddenly reminded me of the carnival game where they put a red ball under one of three or four domes and they ask you to choose which one was hiding the red ball. In this case, I was holding a heavy and very steamy bag of sticky buns wondering which one I wanted first. It was a good place to be.

If you find yourself in Tokyo on a colder morning, make your way to a sticky bun case in a local convenience store and try your hand at the game. If you practice like I did (try and eat as many as you can!), pretty soon, you’ll also be able to tell them apart perfectly too!