Thursday, 18 July 2013

Signatures: Momofuku Pork Buns (David Chang)

The latest post in an occassional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.

Edit: I also put up a companion piece profiling David Chang, originally part of this post but cut for reasons of brevity. Less is more an' all that. But in case you're interested...

The Pork Bun Supremacy

The bun that conquered the world.

Like Nobu’s Black Cod, the steamed pork bun from David Chang's Momofuku's is a dish the world can’t get enough of. It may have started in New York but today the steamed bun has gone defiantly global.

Yum Bun's hommage a la Momofuku
London is one candidate for steamed bun central. Exhibit one is Yum Bun, an achingly trendy food-cart now transformed into an aching-trendy hole-in-the-wall. They have built an entire business  on unashamedly ripping off the New York original. Imitation, flattery, sincerity and all that...

And on the other side of town new opening Flesh and Buns is preparing to unleash an avalanche of steamed buns on the denizens of Soho - not just traditional pork but also slow-roasted Korean lamb, chicken with yuzu and seabass and coriander.

And from New York the juggernaut has moved south to Mexico, where Deli Bao is bringing Pork Bun Goodness to the denizens of Guadalajara.

Then leap across to the other side of the world to Melbourne’s Wonderbao (the clue’s in the name) which offers a range of buns: roasted pork belly (Momofuku-style), braised pork belly (the Taiwanese classic) or fried silken tofu (for misguided vegetarians).

Hirata McBuns from Ippudo
And while you’re in that part of the world stop off at Sydney the branch of world-spanning ramen-ya Ippudo, which offers their own Hirata Pork Buns pairing roast pork belly with crisp lettuce and mayo – basically a Momofuku pork bun crossed with a McChicken sandwich.

We live in the age of the Pork Bun Supremacy.

The Dish

Steamed buns and red herrings

It's oh-so-simple:

Take a slab of pork belly. Slow-roast it in its own fat til its almost confit. Cool, slice, fry, crisp.

Split a freshly steamed Chinese bun and slather the inside with hoisin sauce. Stuff it with slices of pork belly, quick-pickled cucumber and add a dash of sriracha hot sauce.

And there you have it – fatty, salty, meaty, sweet.

The Pork Bun served at Momofuku Seiobo

If you believe David Chang's book, the buns were last-minute addition to the restaurant menu. A take on a “pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating”. If you believe the book, there were three big influences for the dish:

1) Char siu bao buns stuffed with “dark, sweet roast pork” he ate in Beijing
2) Niku-man steamed buns (very similar to Chinese baozi) from Tokyo convenience stores, and
3) The Peking Duck served at Chinatown’s Oriental Garden, which is served with folded over steamed buns rather the traditional thin pancakes.

A Niku-man bun: Nothing like the
Momofuku version...
Actually I suspect this list is a complete red herring.

For one thing you don’t get char siu bao in Beijing. It's a Cantonese dish. yes there are plenty of steamed bao in Beijing but they're stuffed with minced pork and scallions, not roasted char siu. Also both the char-siu and niku-man buns are nothing like the Momofuku dish. They are stuffed buns with the filling steamed inside the raw dough, rather than being loosely-assembled sandwiches.

The real story (or at least, my version)

I want to suggest two alternate inspirations for the Momofuku pork bun:

A Taiwanese Guabao, painstakingly dissected (it was a tough job, but someone had to do it...)
The first is the Taiwanese guabao (刮包), a common fast-food staple. Like the Momofuku pork bun it’s a steamed Chinese bun, split and filled with pork belly. However there are some ciritcal differences. In the guabao the pork belly tends to be braised rather than roasted and it's often shredded. Also rather than cucumber and hoisin, it's topped with pickled mustard greens and crushed peanut. The result is a slightly sloppier tasting product without the delicious sweet-fatty punch of the Momofuku version.

The second inspiration is the famed Sichuanese tea-smoked duck (zhangcha ya). Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery has a wonderful account of the dish. A whole duck is marinated with Sichuan pepper, hot-smoked over dried tea-leaves and then steamed for an hour. Then the whole this is deep-fried, chopped up and served up like a Peking Duck, with scallion, cucumber and hoisin sauce.

Tea-smoked duck with lotus-leaf buns - the fluted shape of
the bun supposedly resembles a lotus leaf (Source: Yelp)
The key difference though is that while Peking Duck is served with thin pancakes, tea-smoked duck is served with fluted steamed buns known as lotus-leaf buns (heye bing), so named because the shape of the bun resembles a lotus leaf. These are folded up at the table with crispy duck, hoisin and cucumber.

Think about it - that’s pretty much the Momofuku recipe. Swap confit pork for the duck and you have a perfect match. Different meat, but the same salty-fatty-smoky-crispy hit.

So take these traditional dishes, throw them together, and amp them up in the pursuit of ultimate deliciousness. A guabao can be a bit tame. Tea-smoked duck a little faffy. But add them together and you have a modern classic.

The Recipe

Of course you don’t have to travel to NYLON or Australia to sample these delights. Thanks to the wonders of modern publishing, the recipe is right there in the Momofuku cookbook:

The recipe from the Momofuku cookbook.

Let’s dig in.

The Meat

The most important part of the recipe is undoubtedly the meat. The recipe is on page 50, a beautifully simple one that demands only three (count 'em!) ingredients.

The belly is marinated in a rub of equal parts salt and sugar (6 – 24 hours; I would advise the lower end of the range), blasted in a hot oven for an hour to brown and then cooked on the lowest-possible setting until tender and pillowy. It’s then chilled and pressed, before being sliced finger-thick and heated in a pan for service.

The Pork Belly Recipe.
A few cook's notes:

  • This recipe is unusual because its uses skinless pork belly (the skin can be a little hassle to take off if you’re knife isn’t sharp enough so ask the butcher). Most roast-belly pork recipes obsesses over keeping the skin on and getting the crackling just-so (you known… shock with boiling water, shock with cold water, rub with vinegar, score to buggery, rub with salt, crisp in the oven, crisp under the grill… the list goes on). Having tried them all I've now decided that actually the Momofuku approach is the best. Leave the perfect crackling to the pros – if you trim off the skin and leave a nice rind of fat it crisps up equally well with the minimum of fuss.
  • I personally think the salt-sugar rub is a stroke of genius – Chang also uses it to prepare the pork shoulder for his Bo Ssam. I’m not sure where this comes from (traditional recipes for Bossam are completely different) – possibly from American-style bbq rubs?
  • While the recipe tells you to roasting the pork belly, scuttlebutt suggests (e.g. the see comment from Rarrgarr at the bottom of this article) that in the restaurant they actually go the whole hog and confit the belly completely submerged in lard. I wouldn’t be surprised...
  • How much you want to heat up your belly slices at the end is a matter of preference. I like them slightly crispy on the cut surface, but at the restaurants they are sometimes just warmed, rather than crisped (see the Seiobo pork bun pictured above). 

The Buns

The steamed bun recipe.
I’d wouldn't lose sleep over your buns. After all Momofuku started off by buying theirs in from the nearest Chinatown outlet – I suggest you do likewise. The most important thing is that it has that little bit of sweetness – traditional Chinese steamed bread has a tablespoon of sugar slipped in to give it that edge. As long you have that covered, you’re laughing.

If you are going to make the buns yourself, the recipe in the Momofuku book looks as good as any. One tip - do make sure use you lard for your shortening (something Yum Bun also copy in their recipe). Using lard in bread is less common in the West, but its the magic ingredient in much Chinese bread making, most notably the ineffably flaky shaobing griddle-cakes of Northern China.

As a subversive alternative, I tend to use brioche buns for this recipe. While not quite as soft as steamed buns, they have the same slight sweetness, and are a lot easier to find.

The Sides

Sriracha on  the side
at Seiobo
Momofuku adds quick-pickled cucumber into the buns (p65). Thankfully there’s not need to muck around with pickling jars or three month waits – sliced cucumber is simply tossed with a mixture of 3:1 sugar salt for 5-10 minutes and rinsed off.

I noticed many imitators such as Yum Bun tend to simply throw in freshly-sliced unpickled cucumber. I find the pickled option to be vastly superior, or alternately substitute thickly-cut slices of pickled Japanese daikon (it has the same sweet-vinegary-crunchy hit).

Hoisin sauce is self-explanatory. If you want a similar salty-sweet hit you might also want to try playing around with Nobu-style miso as a substitute.

Nowadays Momofuku also serves Sriracha hot pepper sauce on the side (e.g. at Seiobo in Sydney). I don’t think this adds much to the dish, but each to their own…

Once you have your meat, steamed buns and sides all you need to do is put them together. Voila!

The Book

An Ode to the Pig

To finish off, a few thoughts on the Momofuku cookbook:

If I had to sum this book up it would be: Ode to the Pig. Just as Alain Ducasse books bang on endlessly about truffles & foie gras, Chang bangs on about pork and everything you can do with it. From the Bo Ssam (roast pork shoulder in lettuce wraps) to the pork buns to the English muffins smeared in bay-leaf butter (made with lard), this book yells: COOKED PORK PRODUCTS.

What’s not to like?

Every chapter tells a story

But beyond that it’s a great book because it tells a story – a strength it shares with the Nobu cookbook.

That book was the story of how Nobu struggled back from the fire that consumed his original restaurant to fame, fortune and multiple-Miami-based spinoffs. This book is the tale of how David Chang (if you believe the hype) blundered from short-order soba chef to world-spanning culinary deity.

The story is told via three restaurants, which make up the three chapters of the book (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, Ko). Each chapter starts with a great intro which basically runs 1) initial struggle to start restaurant, 2) stroke of genius involving cooked pork products, 3) success and moving on to next venture. Above all though it’s a story about Chang and his struggles – with his audience, with the his critics but above all himself. As he wryly comment on Ko, his failing burrito bar: “I was Ahab, and the burrito was my white whale”.

This is undoubted lubricated by his co-writer and partner-in-crime Peter Meehan. As Anthony Bourdain points out, journalist Meehan is a mix of thermostatic regulator and consigliere for the notoriously volatile Chang. I suspect many of the books finer moments from Meehan’s pen as much as from Chang’s mouth. But at the end of the day there’s no difference.

Brussel sprouts, chicken wings, and other things

And like all great books this packed with iconic recipes, and remarkably approachable ones. “Molecular” touches such cryofiltration or transgultaminase feature, but they’re there for a reason rather than just to show off. Mostly it’s just good old-fashioned cooking.

For example the Momofuku Ramen recipe on page 39 goes on for a good seventeen  pages – the most comprehensive treatment of the subject this side of Tokyo (although the upcoming Ivan Ramen book might give it a run for its money). The Chicken Wings on p86 and the Fried Chicken over the page have spawned a generation of down & dirty gourmet chicken imitators. The Brussel Sprouts Kimchee Puree & Bacon on p94 are pure Chang and proof that his fallback strategy runs “If in doubt add bacon. If that doesn’t work add kimchee”.

The Bo Ssam on p168 is a monster of a recipe which has received its own separate write-up in the NY Times. I’ve cooked it for 40 people. It works. The Ghetto Sous-Vide set-up on p170 is the forerunner for any number of DIY sous-vide set-ups (from Cooking for Geeks to the upcoming Codlo). Also noteworthy is the caprese salad on p95 which subs tofu and shiso for mozzarella and basil. Jean-Georges Vongerichten says it’s the best dish Chang ever came up with.

If there’s one weakness it’s that the book has very little in the way of dessert and sweets (apart from the Momofuku Shortcakes and an homage-to-McDonalds hot apple pie). This has of course been remedied with Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar book, although I personally don’t find that volume nearly as engaging as the original.

Appendix: The following buns were harmed in the production of this article...

Field work for this article was primarily conducted whilst on a trip to Sydney. Preparatory research had already taken place in London and New York.

  • Momofuku Noodle Bar (New York): Original and best.
  • Momofuku Seiobo (CBD, Sydney): Slightly out of place in a multi-course tasting menu. Felt daintier than the original - pork just warmed through. Cucumber fresh not pickled.
  • Yum Bun (London): Three trips. The first time (from the market stall) underwhelming. Second time much improved - bigger and juicier all round. Third trip pork ugh overcooked with a bark-like exterior. Needs to be more consistent. 
  • Leong's Legends (London): Slightly skimpy Taiwanese Guabao (listed on the menu as "Taiwanese Mini Kebab with Pork"). Pork much more pulpy and shredded + could be more of it.
  • Ippudo (CBD, Sydney): Distinctly different variation with lettuce and mayo. Makes it lighter and soft-sweet, but still very more-ish.
  • Bao Dao (Chatswood, Sydney): Superior version of the Taiwanese Guabao. Meaty and filling.
  • Ryo's (Crow's Nest, Sydney): Peerless Niku-man Japanese bun with a minced pork filling. Juicy and tasty, but more a traditional Chinese baozi than an actual pork bun.
  • Peking Inn (Pymble, Sydney): Somewhat thuggishly prepared tea-smoked duck and buns at the local Chinese. A touch overdone, but it gets the general idea across.


  1. I've made the pork both ways- with skin and and skin off. It works both ways, and I suspect the skin is trimmed in the first place because it's an unwanted texture in the pork bun/can be used elsewhere (Thomas Keller has the same obsession with taking off the skin too). I think you're right regarding the sugar/salt rub- Chang's from the south and it's the simplest rub there is (aside from salt and salt along, I suppose).

    Good post as always. I check back regularly to see if there's something new on your blog.

    1. Cheers for the note. Your blog looks a lot better laid out than my one (at some point I plan on revisiting the default blogger style sheet and making it all big white spaces and trendy-looking!).

      Yeah I find taking the skin of just takes a whole pile of faff out of the equation. IMHO there are four kinds of roast pork skin you can come out with:
      1) Soggy and chewy (avoid!).
      2) Crunchy but too thick and bark-like. A bit carbonised tasting (the most common "pork crackling" which accompanies a roast. Not ideal).
      3) Crunchy and golden but not too thick (cf Cantonese Siew Yuk roast pork).
      4) Thin crisp and just melting/bursting with fat when you bite into it (like suckling pig skin or a piece of good Peking Duck skin).

      1) and 2) are by far the most likely results. 3) I think is pretty much impossible unless you have a professional kitchen at your disposal (I have seen it done once at home by a fearsome Chinese mama wielding a turbo-broiler. 4) Is the platonic ideal but also pretty much impossible.

      Cooking without skin a) shortcuts all the hassle around 1-4 and b) actually gets a pretty good approximation of 4) (ie thin layer of crisped fat with melty fat underneath). IMHO it just saves so much hassle!

      Interesting comments re: rub. Tx.

    2. Thank you for the kind blog compliments! It is getting there- tumblr makes it easy to make pretty blogs but it is a lot less flexible than blogger, though. Re: crackling, number 4 has me salivating at the mere thought of it. Isn't fat wonderful?

  2. The Gua Bao you had didn't look very good. I've tried the Momofuku pork belly bun at Sydney's Seiobo and in Noodle Bar Toronto. While it was fine, I find it a weak comparison to the original Gua Bao. The ones I've had had slow braised thick-cut pork belly, preserved cabbage, peanut & sugar, pickled cucumbers, and cilantro. It was fatty, tart, crunchy, sweet, salty, warm and cool all at once. An explosion of flavour and texture in the mouth. Momofuku's, on the other hand, needed Sriracha just to boost its flavour beyond the pork belly, which was good in itself. But the lack of multiple textures and flavours actually made the bun a liability for muting the taste of the filling in between. I would have preferred just the pork belly from Momofuku's version. I'd pick the original Taiwanese Gua Bao any day.

    1. Hullo

      Yes certainly the quality of the Gua Bao will play a role! I haven't had one in Taiwan yet!

      I do think that the Guabao recipe has two weaknesses though. The first is that it uses braised rather than roast/confit then reheated pork belly. Because the pork will be sliced up before being braised rather than being roast in one chunk its harder to stop it from overcooking - a problem compounded because its easy to let your liquid get too hot when braising. That's not to say you can't get nice juicy thick-sliced braised pork belly with melting jiggly fat - it's just harder to achieve!

      The second weakness I think is it doesn't have the sweet note you get from hoisin. Fatty rich + sweet is such a great combination (black cod/miso foie gras/fruit peking duck/hoisin) I think it just gives the Momofuku bun that extra string to its bow.

      Agree the Momofuku bun could do with a bit more textural crunch - the cucumber sort of delivers this (one of the reason I like to use crunchy pickled Japanese daikon).

      I'd still take the MMFKU version - however if you can point me in the direction of a good Taiwanese gua bao place I am very open to being convinced! :-p

      All the best J.

  3. You left out 扣肉包. Folks who have eaten/grown up with 扣肉包 laugh themselves silly at that upstart cook who bamboozled the West into thinking that he invented that pork belly bun, charging ridiculous prices for it, and making some folks swoon over it while proclaiming its spread to the rest of the world. 扣肉包 predates his birth by quite a bit. :-)

    1. Dammit I knew I missed something out! :-P I know 扣肉, but didn't know they put it into buns!

      This is basically the HK variation of the guabao, right? Maybe without the crushed peanuts and (maybe) missing the mui choi>

  4. I don't know if I would characterize it as the HK version per se - but it is known in SE Asia besides HK as well. It is commonly called by the Hokkien pronunciation of the characters, e.g. "Kong Bak Pau". If you google "扣肉包" you will get the wide-ranging answer set on that dish with many recipes that encompass both "wetter" versions of the pork belly and "drier" versions,both before stuffing into the mantou buns. :-) I certainly ate such buns when I was growing up in SE Asia eons ago and I for one rolled my eyes when Momofuku put forth its buns.

    1. Oops, meant as a reply to Jon Tseng (26 May) in the immediately preceding comment. :-)

    2. Hmmm and of course this also brings us back to the point that the Chang's story about how he came up with the buns is likely completely bogus... Unless he had exactly the same idea as millions of people across SEA completely by coincidence!

      Reminds me of the black cod / miso actually... Again Asian classic tarted up for a western audience and hailed (though maybe not claimed) as a staggering act of original genius...