Chihiro's Steamed Buns (vegan)


 reading time: 7 min

»I've gotta get out of this place. Someday I’m getting on that train.«

– Lin to Chihiro/Sen, Spirited Away

You probably don't know this about me, but Spirited Away is actually my Nr. 1 favourite anime movie of all time, closely followed by Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies.

My grandma gave me the mangas for my 12th birthday, and growing up, it has always been one of my favourites to read and later watch, especially as a young teenager (but let's be honest here, I still get way too excited whenever I'm re-watching this, lol). It wasn't until I watched Galatea's video on femininity in media though (you know, Galatea from The Authentic Observer, another favourite of mine) that I realized just WHY I love this movie so much!

Chihiro's journey into the spirit world can be seen as a modern Japanese retelling of Alice in Wonderland, but in my opinion Spirited Away is a much more than that because a
s Galatea says, it is a great example for an empowering Heroine's Journey. It is one of the few (popular) stories with a female main character, a girl to be exact, who undergoes an exciting and dangerous adventure in order to save her parents and faces monsters that she has to overcome – and all that whilst not compromising or sacrificing her femininity! For example, Chihiro is the only one in the bathhouse full of magical creatures who is able to stop No-Face's destruction, not by fighting him, but by befriending him and believing in the good in him. Which requires both her bravery and her compassion. This also shows in the way she treats the alleged "stink spirit" who later turns out to be a river spirit and who thanks her with a magic herbal dumpling.

Chihiro is also discriminated by the other workers in the bathhouse (because she is a human), but will not be deterred and continues to treat everyone with kindness and respect nonetheless.

Another aspect I love about this movie is that Chihiro isn't especially pretty, or cute, or even sexy. She's just a regular, rather unremarkable girl, beautiful in a very "mundane" way. She's also quite clumsy, but still hard-working and determined. Oh, and her journey isn't about romantic love either, but about the love for her parents and later for her friends and even her "enemies". Although one could argue that her unconditional love for Haku is something in-between platonic and romantic. Perhaps the best way to describe them as is "soul mates".

It also needs to be said that all of the main characters
– except for the river spirit Haku and perhaps Kamaji – are female: Chihiro, Lin, Yubaba, Zeniba ...

But enough about my love for this movie!

Let's talk about these steamed buns now. Lovely soft, slightly sweet, warm buns ... *drool*

In the movie Lin brings along a plate full of huge squishy buns ("dumplings") filled with a dark red paste during the celebrations of having released the river spirit. It is one of the first big successes on Chihiro's journey.

These are most likely
Dou Sha Bao (豆沙包), one of the most popular Chinese desserts. I've also read the term Da Bao (大包) or Mantou (馒头) though, and I think the Korean equivalent to these sweet red bean filled steamed buns is called Hoppang (호빵). There's also a Japanese version of this called Anpan (あんパン), but it doesn't seem to have the characteristic white dough, but is more golden on the outside. (We even have very similar steamed yeast buns here in Germany called Germknödel which are traditionally filled with spiced plum jam and served with vanilla cream sauce, and then there's also the German Dampfnudel which translates to "steam noodle" and refers to a sweet bread roll almost identical to the Chinese Mantou. Interesting to see the intercultural similarities!)

Chihiro munching away on a steamed bun. (source)

I based my recipe on the classic Chinese steamed buns. They are soft and fluffy like a white little dough pillow, and filled with the not-too-sweet gooey red bean paste that is very unique in taste.

A delicious snack or dessert! Ideal if you're planning to do a Miyazaki movie marathon any time soon 😉

(I know this is probably considered a sacrilege, but I would actually recommend serving these buns with vanilla sauce, like the Germknödel I mentioned above! Or feel free to replace the sweet bean filling with a savoury filling, if that's more up your alley ...)


adapted from Fiction Food Café

Preparation time: 2 hours (+ 1 hour proofing time)
Main ingredients: flour, yeast, red beans, dates
difficulty level: easy
makes: 8 large steamed buns
suitable for: vegan, lactose-free, wheat-free, nut-free, low sugar, low fat


500 g spelt flour (type 630 or all-purpose flour)

3 tbsp powdered sugar
a pinch of salt
250 ml lukewarm
plant-based milk or water (or a mix of both)
4 tsp active dry yeast
2 tsp granulated sugar (I use raw cane sugar)
2 tbsp vegan margarine or vegetable oil
(optional) 1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup (100 g) dry adzuki beans or red beans, soaked for at least 2-3 hours or overnight
water for soaking and boiling the beans
1/4 cup soft deseeded dates (or sugar)
3 tbsp coconut milk
3 tbsp agave syrup
1 tbsp date syrup (or more agave)
(optional) 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

or 200 g store-bought red bean paste (available in most Asian stores)

a pot
a bamboo steamer or steamer basket (alternatively you can use a metal strainer or colander!)
parchment paper


To make the filling:

Rinse and drain soaked adzuki beans. Place in a large pot, fill with enough water to cover the beans by about an inch. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for about 1 hour. Check on the beans in-between to make sure there's still enough water to keep them submerged. After about an hour, test a bean by mashing it with a spoon or your fingers. If it just splits in halves, it's not ready yet. Keep cooking until it mashes easily.

Turn off heat and drain the beans. Allow to cool.

Add cooked beans to a food processor, along with deseeded dates and the remaining ingredients for the filling. Blend until a sticky paste forms. Set aside in the fridge to firm up while making the bun dough.

To make
the dough:

In a small bowl, combine lukewarm plant-based milk or water, sugar, and active dry yeast. Set aside for a few minutes until foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, powdered sugar, and salt. Add the foamy yeast mixture, and stir until roughly combined. Add margarine or vegetable oil, and optionally vanilla extract.

Use an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment to knead the dough for 8 minutes, or until the dough is super soft and smooth. You could also use your hand, or do a mix of both: a couple of minutes with the mixer, then kneading the rest with your hands.

Once the dough is velvety soft and smooth and does not stick to your hands or the bowl, cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or a plate, and leave to proof for 1 hour in a warm spot.

In the meantime, roll your cooled red bean filling into balls about the size of a walnut.

To assemble:

Once the dough is done proofing and has doubled in size, transfer it to a dusted surface. Knead once again, then form a log, and divide it into 8 equal sized pieces. Shape each piece into a round, and roll it out into a disk using a rolling pin or your hands.

Each piece should be big enough to enclose the bean paste ball with a little extra to overlap and seal. It should also be thinner at the edges and thicker in the centre.

Place one ball of red bean filling in the centre of the dough disk. Gather the edges of the dough around the filling, and pinch them together to enclose the ball. Seal, and set aside on a piece of parchment paper, seam side down.

Fill a pot with about 5 cm / 2 inches of warm water, then place the steamer inside or on top of the pot, depending on what you are using.

Transfer the buns to the steamer, making sure they are each sitting on a small piece of parchment paper to prevent them from sticking to the steamer. Cover with a lid, and rest for another 20 minutes at room temperature.

Turn the heat on to medium-high. Steam the buns for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, but let the buns sit in the steamer over the remaining heat for another 5 minutes. Do not uncover the lid yet!

After a total of 20 minutes, your steamed buns should be ready. Enjoy while still warm!

Any leftover buns can be frozen once cooled and re-steamed for about 5 minutes to eat.

The last picture shows how I served the buns: doused with pink Himalayan balsam syrup. Sweet, sticky, yummy!

BTW: Back in 2014 I drew
a sketch of Chihiro with the chubby mouse baby and the fly-that-looks-like-a-tiny-bird, using this image as reference, so I thought I'd share it with you. I remember being quite obsessed with the manga as a young teen (way before 2014), and copying scenes from Spirited Away was
literally what drove me to start drawing!

Looking for more nerdy recipes? Check out some of my fiction-inspired creations:

The Witcher's Honey Spice Cake (vegan)
Sansa's Lemon Cakes (vegan)