Steamed Chinese buns stuffed with slices of savory-sweet pork belly is all the rage these days, thanks to David Chang and his staff at Momofuku in New York City. They didn’t invent this snack, as Chang would admit, but just made it ultra hip. The Chinese came up with this rich ditty that utilizes humble steamed rolls made from Chinese yeast-leavened dough (famian) and braised pork belly, a very inexpensive cut. The combination is elegant tasting, especially if you pair champagne with it. A nice appetizer or snack for the holidays.
Bao dough is basically Chinese bao dough and it can be filled and steamed into a bun or left unfilled and steamed into a bread or roll, depending on its shape. I grew up going to weddings and like where little steamed buns were served alongside roast duck, char siu pork and roast pork. We treated them just like western rolls, splitting them open and stuffing them with whatever rich meats were around. Once I figured out how to make my perfect steamed Chinese buns, there was no stopping me. After tasting the pork belly buns at Momofuku Ssam bar a couple years ago, I started braising pork belly for stuffing into little steamed rolls.
It’s not difficult to prepare braised pork belly and steamed buns, and you can made them both in advance and freeze them, thawing and reheating both for special guests or when you’re in the mood for something splendidly sinful. For the pork belly and bun recipe below, I adapted the braised pork belly recipe from Takashi’s Noodles;borrowed steamed buns made from my bao dough in Asian Dumplings; and employed the quick cucumber pickle recipe from Momofuku. Note that braised pork belly is often times called cha shu in the Japanese repertoire despite the fact that it’s not roasted like Cantonese char siu pork. If you know the answer to why that is, do let me know! Japanese cha shu pork belly is the classic toping on ramen noodles too. Asian markets are one of the best sources for fresh, affordable pork belly.
Serves 6 to 8
1/2 tablespoon canola oil
10 ounces pork belly
4 cups cold water
1/2 cup sake
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) or Kikkoman soy sauce
3/4 cups sugar
1 star anise, with 8 full robust points
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and smashed
12 medium Steamed Chinese Rolls
2 small scallions, cut crosswise into 2-inch lengths then lengthwise into thin strips
1 Persian cucumber, cut into 1/8-inch-thick rounds or ovals
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Sriracha Sauce, homemade or storebought
1. For the pork belly, heat the oil in a medium skillet over high heat until just smoking. Use tongs to sear the fatty side of the pork belly in the pan until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn over and repeat the searing on the other sides. Lower the heat if the pan smokes too much. Transfer to a plate.
2. In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the pork belly, cold water, sake, and ginger. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Transfer to a plate, then discard the liquid.
3. Wash the saucepan and then put all the braising liquid ingredients in the pan. Add the pork belly, bring to a boil, lower the heat to simmer. Cover and cook gently for 1 1/2 hours, until the pork belly is very tender. Set aside to cool.
4. Transfer the pork belly and braising liquid to a container and refrigerate, uncovered, until cool. Cover and chill overnight.
5. Meanwhile, make the steamed buns, if you have not already.
6. Before serving, return the buns to room temperature. Soak the scallion in a bowl of water for 5 minutes to reduce their harshness. Drain and pat dry, then transfer to a serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate if you are not serving right away.
Toss the cucumber with the sugar and salt and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain, rinse, and pat dry. Transfer to a small serving bowl and set aside. Chill if making hours in advance.
7. Right before serving, bring a Chinese steamer to a gentle boil. Slice the pork belly 1/4-inch thick and place on a plate. Reheat in the steamer for 3 to 4 minutes. Then resteam the buns until hot to the touch, about 2 minutes.
8. To serve, open up a bun, slide a slice of pork inside, tuck some scallion in and some cucumber too. Have the Sriracha on the side for those who want to squirt in some extra kick. If you like, reheat some of the braising liquid and moisten the bun with it. You can also set all the components out and let guests help themselves.
Note: For extra sweetness, combine 1/2 cup of the braising liquid with the 2 tablespoons of hoisin sauce and serve on the side for guests who desire an extra sweet-savory hit to their buns.