Holy Bao! – Braised Pork Belly Bao

I have this “thing” for San Francisco. It’s bordering on becoming an addiction. It started this past spring when I bundled up Marcello for a road trip and headed northwest to the California Delta to cover a fishing tournament for my “day job”. We were stationed in Stockton, CA which was a mere 83 miles from San Francisco.

And in San Francisco was the legendary Wok Shop.

When you live in an isolated part of the country like I do, you get used to making day trips in order to obtain necessary day-to-day amenities.  It just ain’t no thing for me to hop in the car and make a 275-mile round trip to get kick-ass groceries.

So we took a day off from covering the tournament (don’t tell my boss – but it WAS my birthday!), hoped in the pony with the Wok Shop’s address in-hand and headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. Turns out I didn’t get to cross that to get where we were going, but we could see it off in the distance, cloaked in fog, and that was okay, too.

It’s really a travesty Marcello and I only got to spend a few hours in SF’s magical Chinatown, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. This shop, recently featured in my new idol Ching-He’s “Easy Chinese – San Francisco”, is everything you hear it is, and more. I went in with a preconception of what I wanted and walked out with something totally different – but it’s been the best wok I’ve ever owned.

Iron/Enamel Wok

If you EVER need a really good traditional wok and you’d like excellent information on how to season and care for your wok, check out the Wok Shop’s website – if you’re unable to go there in person (which is a real treat so do put that on your list of things to do).

That’s how it all got started, and since then, my attraction to this City by the Bay seems to be ever-increasing.

The pull grew stronger when I started watching Showtime’s new documentary on the San Francisco Giants – “The Franchise”. Just a cool little play-by-play documentary about the Giant’s post-World Series season this year. After a particular episode heavily featured “Got-Heeeem!” closer Brian Wilson (and if you don’t know what “got heeem” refers to, you need to google it), I was completely smitten. Beard and Mohawk aside, the man has “eyes like the sea after a storm” and is an insanely calm firestorm on the mound.

Brian Wilson is known, among other things, for being a very healthy eater (which makes his latest Taco Bell commercials a bit odd, but I guess someone’s gotta pay the bills) and living in San Francisco, I’m sure he has a long list of excellent joints. Brian – call me, let’s do tofu.

Which brings me ultimately to the Bao. Bao is not health food. Pork Belly is basically bacon that hasn’t been smoked. It is not something I (or Brian Wilson) should be eating a lot of – and so I don’t. I indulge in this heavenly goodness infrequently, and rewarding myself with it keeps me from going on a huge diet-killing bender!

This particular Bao recipe is Ching-He’s Braised Pork Belly Bao which is her take on Chairman Bao’s steamed and baked pork belly buns. Never heard of Chairman Bao’s? It’s one of the hottest food trucks in San Francisco right now. Yeah, we’re coming full circle now, aren’t we pilgrims? We’re back to San Francisco – where I may have left my heart …

As ever, the entire recipe and instructions will be posted below, but I’d like to meander a bit and talk about the process. Ching-He’s recipe for this pork belly bun is really quite easy, but there is a fair amount of time involved due to the braising. And you really can’t avoid the braising – it’s what makes the pork belly so tender and melty.

David Chang of Momofuko likes to roast his pork belly – but it takes even longer than this braising method and I’ll admit I was a bit more successful with Ching-He’s. I don’t blame this on David, I blame it on the pork belly. It’s difficult for me to obtain. The closest are the Asian shops in Phoenix or Las Vegas, both about 4.5 hours from me. And when I do get it, I never seem to be able to get the really thick cuts of pork belly that I see in David’s cookbooks and on Ching-He’s show. I believe I’m getting inferior cuts of pork belly :(

Ching-He’s braising method kept the pork belly very moist and so ultimately, this is the best pork belly I’ve made so far.

Braising  or poaching the raw pork belly in a pot of water first helps speed up the cooking process when you get to the steaming step and it also helps to start rendering some of the fat out of the meat.

After the braising you’ll be “flash frying” the meat in a wok to create a crispy coating on the outside surface of the pork belly, then you’ll be steaming the meat in a sauce that will later be a condiment you’ll want to spoon not only over your crispy pork belly buns, but everything in sight.

Well at least I did.

This is part the takes the longest – the braise in water is only 30 minutes, but the steam/braising in the liquid should take you about an hour and a half. The belly needs to be really jiggly.

The pork belly – not your belly.

The assembling portion of this dish is just fun – and cute because the buns are little. As I mentioned, these aren’t super healthy, but if you eat just one or  two little buns – you’re good to go. They may be small, but they’re jam-packed with umami goodness – sweet and salty!

Ching-He diverges from Chairman Bao’s traditional bao just slightly by adding her special brown sugar and crushed peanut topping. If you’re watching your sugar intake, leave out the brown sugar but do include some crushed peanuts for crunch. A tangy pickled cucumber and shallot relish adds extra zip, the thickened sauce provides that umami deliciousness, and I also schmeared on a bit of Sriracha sauce for heat in the end!

You can toss your thawed store-bought buns into the steamer after you remove the meat to warm them through, or, simply wrap the buns in moist paper towels and nuke them in the microwave for about 20 seconds.

Everything in moderation, dear friends. Invite your buds over to help you keep from snarfing down all four to six servings yourself. No, seriously. Do that. GREAT way to make new friends.

Braised Pork Belly Bao (serves 4-6)

Ingredients

  • Pork Belly:
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh pork belly, with skin
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • Sauce:
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 4 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 heaping tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Shaohsing rice wine
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch blended with 2 tablespoons water (cornstarch slurry)
  • 1 cup salted peanuts, ground or chopped
  • 2 heaping tablespoons brown sugar
  • 10 to12 Chinese bao buns or small plain burger buns (I can find the bao buns in Asian grocers quite often)
  • Quick Cucumber and Shallot Pickle, recipe follows
  • 2 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces, then julienned
  • 4 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped

QUICK CUCUMBER AND SHALLOT PICKLE:

  • 1 hothouse or English cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Directions

For the pork belly: Bring a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot of water to a boil. Add the pork belly and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the pot, rinse under cold water and then dry with some paper towels. Slice the pork into 3 even pieces and set aside.

Heat a wok over high heat and add the peanut oil. When the oil begins to smoke, add the pork pieces and stir-fry for about 1 minute per side to brown. When the pork is browned, add the dark soy and stir-fry for another 2 minutes. Transfer the pork to a plate that will fit inside a large bamboo steamer with at least a 1-inch margin between the plate and the steamer.

For the sauce: In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir to combine the vegetable stock, light soy sauce, brown sugar and rice wine; set aside. Reheat the wok and add the peanut oil. When the oil is hot, add the ginger, Sichuan peppercorns and star anise and then stir-fry for a few seconds. Add in the sauce and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour the sauce over the pork.

Place the plate of pork into a steamer over a wok or pot filled halfway with water and bring to a boil. Steam the pork over medium heat until the pork is tender, 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours. Check the pot occasionally to be sure that the water hasn’t completely evaporated.Remove the pork from the steamer and transfer all of the juices from the pork into a small wok or pan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and stir in the cornstarch slurry. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes to thicken the sauce.

In a mortar and pestle, crush the peanuts, or finely chop them with your knife. Combine the peanuts and brown sugar; set aside until ready to serve.

Slice the pork belly. Fill each bao bun with a slice of pork and a few tablespoons of the thickened pork sauce, garnish with the sweetened peanut crumble, Quick Cucumber and Shallot Pickle, scallions and fresh cilantro.

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9 thoughts

  1. My mouth is watering! I grew up eating the Chinese-style buns, but I love these Japanese buns too. The bread is different but so good. And pork belly is awesome stuff.

    • I do have a recipe for Chinese style buns but I’ll readily admit I’m afraid to try it. I’m terrible with bread, though the recipe doesn’t look that difficult. I’ll put that on my list of things to do!

  2. These look so amazing, and so easy to make! I’m lucky enough to have a local butcher that sources all his meat from local, small farmers and since its pig slaughtering season, the fresh and local pork belly will soon be upon us! Can’t wait to try this recipe out…

  3. I am in Seattle area and searching mini Bao buns for the recipe from Holy Bao that was posted in your foodnwhine site. Everything I have found in the Asian stores are not sweet enough & not shaped the same way.
    Thanks!

    • Dear Mona – I’ve never searched for bao buns in Seattle, but I know they have a great international district (the ID) that is bound to have some. Likewise, I’ve been wanting to try the bao bun recipe by David Chang from his Momofuko cookbook. Those just have to be good, right? I mean, it’s David Chang!

      I’ve been hesitant to make buns myself because, well, it looks intimidating! But my sister has gotten me on a bread-making kick and I think I’m willing to try it. I guess I should get the lead out and try David’s bao recipe and let everyone know how it goes.

      It’s true, the buns I’ve gotten at Asian markets aren’t as tender as the one’s I’ve tried that are fresh.

      Best of luck in your bao search. Stay tuned, I’ll try to get David’s recipe up here shortly!

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