Steamed Buns from Spirited Away

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When it comes to animated feasts, few foods come even remotely close to looking as delicious as the dishes featured in the movies from Ghibli Studios.

Spirited Away is no exception.

One of my all time favorite movies, I have fond memories of popping in the Spirited Away DVD into my TV set and imagining my own adventures alongside Haku and Chihiro instead of doing my homework.

While there are many, many dishes in this movie that are worthy of re-creation, I’ve gotten so many requests over on TikTok for Lin’s red bean bun that I knew it had to be the inaugural recipe in my new Ghibli-inspired food series.

While Lin hands what she calls a dumpling to Chihiro after a busy day in the bathhouse, I think that the name was simplified for American audiences in the dub (as many anime shows do).

What Lin is really offering Chihiro is bao, or a kind of steamed bun, filled with red bean paste.

Bao bread is lightly steamed in a bamboo steamer until the bread is cooked through – it is light and fluffy and can be filled with many different fillings.

One of the many traditional fillings is red bean paste.

This may sound like an unusual filling to American readers but red bean filling is actually very sweet and often served as a dessert in many Asian cultures.

Making the Bao Dough

The trickiest part to making red bean buns is getting the perfect rise to the dough.

  • flour – cake flour has a higher protein content, giving breads more rise (all-purpose can be used in this recipe or done in a 2:1 ratio)
  • yeast + sugar – gives the dough the most rise and will easily double the size of the dough
  • vegetable oil – helps keep the buns moist as they cook and cool
  • baking powder – gives the dough additional rise

Proofing the Dough

Allowing the dough to rise is an essential step to making the perfect bao buns for filling. If you have a proofing setting on your oven, I highly recommend you put it to use in this recipe.

Once the dough is made and kneaded, it needs to rise for at least an hour – or longer – until it has doubled in size. When it has doubled up in size, I rolled mine out into a long log-shape and cut it into about twelve individual dough balls. I recommend keeping a lightly damp cloth handy to place over the dough balls once cut so that they don’t begin to dry out.

Working one by one, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough balls on a flour dusted surface. Make the edges of the wrapper slightly thinner than the center. As you gather up the edges around the filling, you will notice that the bottom quickly gets thicker than the top. Pinch the edges together until the filling is completely sealed inside of the dough.

If there is too dough much on the bottom, twist and pinch off any excess.

Then once the dough has been rolled out and cut into individual pieces and after the pieces have been rolled out into wrappers and filled, they will need to rise again until puffed up.

I covered my dough buns with a lightly dampened cloth and proofed them for about 30 minutes while I prepped the bamboo steamer. This was the perfect amount of time to get the buns doubled up in size.

Prepping the Steamer

Traditionally bao is steamed in bamboo baskets over simmering water in a wok. The steam trapped inside of the baskets cooks the buns without letting condensation accumlate and drip onto the buns. I definitely recommend getting yourself a bamboo steamer (affiliate link) if you don’t already have one!

If you do end up going the traditional route and are using a wok and bamboo steamer, just make sure to fill the wok up enough to fully submerge the bottom portion of the bamboo steamer in about 1/4 inch of water. This will create the best seal and prevent any burning.

What fictional feasts should I make next? Leave a comment below or head over to TikTok to see what others are suggesting!

Steamed Buns from Spirited Away

The Starving Chef
Making red bean buns inspired by the one eaten by Chihiro in Spirited Away.
Prep Time 4 hours
Cook Time 30 minutes
Chill Time 8 hours
Total Time 12 hours 30 minutes
Course Dessert, Fictional Feasts
Cuisine Asian, Movies
Servings 12 buns




  • 15 oz adzuki beans drained & rinsed
  • ¾ cup sugar (add less for a more savory filling)
  • 2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar can sub brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ghee can sub butter
  • 2 tablespoons orange zest
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 dried & pitted dates soaked in 4 tablespoons warm water for 15 minutes (optional, for added sweetness)
  • ¼ cup water + more as needed




  • Use a food processor to blend together the ingredients for the red bean paste. Add only enough water to blend the mixture into a thin, mostly smooth paste.
  • Transfer the red bean mixture to a sauce pan over medium-high heat. Stir with a spatula continuously to prevent the mixture burning on the bottom. The mixture with darken and thicken as it cooks.
  • Continue stirring until the spatula can be pulled across the bottom of the pan and leave a clean path behind it. This process can take 30-40 minutes. The red bean paste should be darked and thickened.
  • Remove from the heat and allow to cool at room temperature until no longer steaming hot. Then transfer to an airtight container and chill in the fridge until thickened into a dark paste – about 8-10 hours.


  • In a large bowl or stand mixer, whisk together the warm water, yeast and sugar. Allow the yeast to activate over about 5-10 minutes or until frothy.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Stir the vegetable oil into the dry mix until small crumbles come together.
  • Slowly pour the dry mix into the activated yeast and water while stirring constantly. Continue to mix until a thick dough comes together. Then use the dough hook on the stand mixer to knead the dough for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Alternatively, tip the dough out onto a flour dusted surface and hand knead for 10 mintues until smooth.
  • Place the dough into a bowl lightly greased with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp towel then proof until the dough has doubled in size – about 1-2 hours.*
  • Once doubled up in size, punch down the dough and transfer to a surface dusted with flour. Roll the dough into a long log shape then cut the dough into 12 equal sized pieces. Alternatively, if making GIANT bean buns (as seen in the movie) only cut into 4 pieces.
  • Gently roll each piece into a ball shape. Place the dough balls onto a baking sheet or cutting board and cover lightly with a damp towel.
  • Working one piece at a time, use a rolling pin to roll out each dough ball into a 4-6 inch round circle/dumpling wrapper shape. Roll the edges thinner than the center.
  • Dollop about 2-3 tablespoons of the red bean paste onto the center of the dough ball. Pull the edges over the filling and tuck, pleat and pinch until the filling is completely enclosed in the dough. Pinch off any excess dough (as needed) to make the dough an even thickness around the filling. Place each filled dough ball onto a square sheet of parchment. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.**
  • Place the filled dough balls back onto the baking sheet or cutting board and cover again with a damp towel, move to a warm place and rise for another 15-30 minutes or until the buns are doubled in size.*
  • Use this second rise time to prep the bamboo steamer. Fill a wok with enough water to cover the bottom quarter inch of the bamboo steamer. Turn the heat on high and bring the water to a rolling simmer.
  • Once doubled in size, work in batches to steam the buns without over crowding the steamer. My steamer fit 3 buns in each basket. Close the steamer tightly and steam for 15 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE STEAMER OR ELSE YOUR BUNS MAY WRINKLE. Carefully remove the steamed buns from the steamer and set aside. Repeat the cooking process with the remaining buns.
  • Allow the buns to cool for about 10 minutes to fully set the middle. Serve the steamed buns warm or room temperature for best results. To reheat, place the buns back into a preheated steamer for about 3-4 minutes. Enjoy while escaping from Yubaba's bath house.


*TIPS: Use your oven’s proofing setting to get the best rise. Alternatively, turn the oven to 90°F – 100°F OR turn on the oven light to increase the temperature of the oven slightly above room temperature. The more warmth and humidity provided to the dough will both increase the amount of rise and decrease the amount of time for it to double in size. 
**TIPS: To prevent the buns from over proofing, remove the buns from the oven on the proof setting or transfer to the fridge between batches to slow the rise.
Keyword Asian, bao, beans, dough, dumplings, Southeast Asian
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