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|
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|
We live in the age of the Pork Bun Supremacy.
Steamed buns and red herringsIt'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
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 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)
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.
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 MeatThe 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.
- 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 steamed bun recipe.|
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.
|Sriracha on the side|
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!
An Ode to the PigTo 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
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 thingsAnd 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”.
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.
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.