This mantou panzanella is my personal King Lear

“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.” —King Lear
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.” —King Lear
Photo: Patricia Kelly Yeo

I long for the days of early quarantine, when all we cared about was whether Carole Baskin killed her husband and dunking on self-optimization true believers chalking up stay-at-home orders as yet another way to maximize productivity. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear,” tweeted singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash on March 14, when stay-at-home orders began rolling out across America. God damn it, Rosanne, I don’t need that kind of pressure.

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Apparently, a lot of people on the internet thought so, too. Cue the takes—hot, lukewarm, and cold—for weeks on end. They fall into a few categories, like the straightforwardly anti-grind, the mildly optimistic, and the heavily shaded clapback.

Though the Protestant work ethic-esque urge to self-flagellate for laziness may course deeply through America’s veins, I’ve managed to finally unlearn the late-stage capitalist doctrine of productivity at any cost. Eat my heightened stress resilience, suckers! I’m doing things for the sake of enjoying doing them—and passing my time without the self-imposed need to produce the equivalent of a literary magnum opus.

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It came as a major surprise to me, then, to have a eureka moment in the kitchen after I’d made an Italian bread salad, also known as panzanella, also known as an Unhealthy Salad. Using my final hunk of a local bakery’s tooth-crackingly hard country loaf, I put together a glorified EVOO-glossed pile of croutons and tomatoes that white Americans have deluded themselves into believing is rustic “gourmet.” Fancy it may not be, but I must admit the combination was good.

Full of refined carbs and wine-drunk in the middle of a weekday, as one does while contemplating matriculating from graduate school into an economic crisis, inspiration struck. The Los Angeles Times had just published a simple recipe for steamed Chinese mantou. In the dappled sunlight of my mother’s backyard patio, the creative gears began to churn. Quarantine-repressed memories of eating Din Tai Fung’s spicy cucumber salad surfaced. The mantou panzanella was born.

Best enjoyed slightly warm like the original Italian version, the mantou panzanella is the perfect late summer salad that’s not really a salad but an excuse to eat more carbs. The soft steamed bread, though mildly toasted in a skillet, retains the pillowy consistency that distinguishes the dim sum pork bao and the white clamshell buns New York’s Momofuku made famous. Although the version I make uses homemade mantou, packages of plain, unfilled frozen Chinese mantou are available in most major Asian supermarkets if you’re looking for a less time-intensive substitute.

Slices of thin-skinned Persian cucumbers take the place of tomatoes. A sprinkling of salt draws out the water inside them. A vinaigrette of Chinese five spice powder, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and ponzu gives the entire dish a light, distinctive dressing smelling faintly of cinnamon. Cilantro, green onions, and sesame seeds add texture and additional flavor. To harken back to the salad at Din Tai Fung, feel free to add some hot chili oil.

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Despite its pandemic origins, the mantou panzanella has the potential to become a perennial summer picnic favorite. If I accomplish nothing else in life, consider this my magnum opus.


“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” —King Lear
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” —King Lear
Photo: Patricia Kelly Yeo
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Mantou Panzanella

Serves 5

  • 5 Persian cucumbers
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2½ cups of mantou (steamed Chinese bread), cut into cubes
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp. ponzu soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1½ Tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp. chili oil, optional
  • 1½ tsp. Chinese five spice powder
  • ⅓ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 3 green onions, sliced thinly, white parts removed
  • 2 tsp. black sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp. white sesame seeds

Slice the Persian cucumbers to about 1/4" thickness and combine in a bowl with the salt. Set aside while you prepare the croutons and dressing. Do not drain.

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In a large skillet, heat half the vegetable oil on medium heat. Add the mantou, making sure not to overcrowd the pan, until cubes are lightly browned on some sides. Repeat with the remaining vegetable oil and cubed mantou.

Combine ponzu soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, Chinese five spice powder, and chili oil (if using) in a small bowl. Whisk together until combined. Add more rice vinegar to lighten the flavor if desired.

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In a larger mixing bowl, combine mantou croutons, dressing, and cucumbers, and mix with salad tongs or spatula. Add in sesame seeds, green onions, and cilantro. Serve immediately.

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DISCUSSION

That sounds and looks delicious.  If I make this, “Serves 5" will end up being a fairly sad joke.