Lijiang’s most famous food is a flatbread known as baba. But baba, which is served as a hearty breakfast, is a type of food, not a specific recipe. The baba found in Lijiang Old Town and the surrounding plain range from thin, fried flatbreads served as part of a larger meal to thick disks filled with layers of minced ham, flavored with a thick paste made from rendered lard, and fried in oil.
This simple but hearty version—a thick bread filled with layers of meat or nuts and cooked on a flat griddle with only a minimum amount of oil—is inspired by the one made by Xi He, a Naxi woman who has been selling her baba from a small table on the streets of Old Town for fifteen years. Like most cooks in Lijiang, Xi uses a bit of the previous day’s dough as a starter, and over the years, her baba has developed a complex flavor, similar to a mild sourdough. This version is leavened with yeast but has a small amount of yogurt worked in to give it a more complex flavor. It can be filled with salty ham or a mixture of flavorful beef and scallions, as are Xi’s popular baba, or with a sweet combination of nuts and sugar that is also popular in the area. Makes four baba.
- 1/3 cup plain yogurt
- 1 tsp. active dry yeast
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 cup pastry flour
- Beef, ham, or nut and sugar filling
- Chile sauce (lajiao jiang) (optional)
- Vegetable oil, for cooking
- Dumpling rolling pin or wooden dowel
1.) In a large bowl, mix the yogurt and yeast with 1-3/4 cups of lukewarm water and stir until the yeast is dissolved and the liquid is well-mixed.
2.) Add 2 cups of the all-purpose flour and stir until everything is incorporated into a sticky mass.
3.) Let the dough rest in a warm place, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour.
4.) Add the remaining 1 cup all-purpose flour and the pastry flour to the dough and stir to incorporate.
5.) Flour a clean work surface and knead the dough, continuing to incorporate flour as needed so that the dough has a sticky texture but doesn’t come off in clumps on your hands (this can mean adding 1/4 cup of flour or even a bit more, depending on the weather and how your dough has risen).
6.) Knead for 5 minutes, until the dough is fairly smooth, then put it back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 to 3 hours.
7.) Pull the dough away from the side of the bowl and knead it lightly so that it deflates. Divide the dough into quarters.
8.) Heat a large cast-iron pan over a low flame. Lightly oil a work surface with a bit of vegetable oil, and oil a dumpling rolling pin or wooden dowel, letting the oil also coat your hands.
9.) Take one quarter of the dough and roll it out on the oiled work surface into a long, thin oval—the dough will be very springy and bounce back; keep rolling until you have an oval about 20 inches long and 6 inches wide.
10.) Top the dough with one portion of your chosen filling (see below), distributing the ingredients evenly and pressing them gently into the dough. Starting at one of the short ends, roll the dough up into a tight spiral, then stand the spiral on its end and press it down with your hands to form a circle with the filling rolled up like a spiral. Press the spiral into a flat circle with the palm of your hand, then use the rolling pin to flatten the circle until it measures about 9 inches across, flipping the circle over once as you roll.
11.) Coat the pan with a light film of vegetable oil and put the filled dough into the pan.
12.) Cover the pan with a wok lid and cook the bread, flipping it once or twice and re-covering it, until it is browned on both sides and the edges look completely cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes for the nut filling, 10 to 12 minutes for the ham, and 12 to 15 minutes for the beef.
13.) Cut each baba into quarters and serve hot with a bit of chile sauce to spread on top, if desired.
- 8-1/2 oz. ground or finely chopped beef (scant 1 cup)
- 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1-1/2 tsp. light soy sauce
- 7-1/2 tbsp. fragrant chile sauce (xiangla jiang)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. Sichuan Peppercorn Powder
- 4 tbsp. very thinly sliced scallions, white and light green parts only
1.) Set aside 4 tbsp. of the meat to use raw in the baba.
2.) In a wok, heat the oil over a high flame until very hot. Break up the remaining beef with a fork and add it to the wok.
4.) Stir-fry the meat, breaking it up with a wok spatula, until it is cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes.
5.) Add the soy sauce and fragrant chile sauce to the meat and stir-fry, stirring and flipping frequently, until the ingredients are well mixed, 2 to 3 minutes; use the back of a wok shovel to smash the beans in the chile sauce against the side of the wok so that they become part of the sauce.
6.) Remove the meat and sauce from the wok, draining off the excess oil, and let the mixture cool to room temperature before using.
7.) Fill each baba with 1/4 tsp. of salt, a large pinch of the Sichuan Peppercorn Powder, 3 tbsp. of the cooked meat mixture, 1 tbsp. of the raw beef, and 1 tbsp. of the sliced scallions.
- 2-1/4 oz. Yunnan ham or Spanish Jamón Serrano, with very little fat on it, rind removed
1.) Cut the ham into small dice; you should have 1/2 cup.
2.) Fill each baba with 1/4 of the ham.
Sweet Nut and Sesame Filling
- 1/2 cup raw walnuts
- 1/4 cup raw peanuts
- 2 tbsp. black sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp. sugar
1.) Toast the walnuts and peanuts together in a hot cast-iron pan, stirring constantly, until the nuts are fragrant and a little brown on all sides, 1-1/2 to 2 minutes.
2.) Using a mortar and pestle or a small food processor, crush and grind the nuts, sesame seeds, and sugar into a fine powder.
3.) Fill each baba with 1/4 of the mixture (a little less than 1/4 cup).
More from Cooking South of the Clouds
- Lessons from a Master Ham Maker
- Dali-Style Cucumber with Vinegar and Chile Sauce Recipe
- A Typical Yunnanese Kitchen Pantry
- Babao Style Duck Stewed in Beer Recipe
Reprinted with permission from Cooking South of the Clouds by Georgia Freedman and published by Kyle Books, 2018.