Pork Belly Buns a la David Chang & Pork Belly 101

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For my first experience cooking with pork, I decided to try making Pork Buns. David Chang has popularised these traditional Chinese buns through his restaurant Momofuku and there are enough and more recipes online to follow through. Now more important than these recipes, to me at this point, are my learnings with pork. I've never cooked pork and I've never seen my mom cooking pork. My aunt makes the best pork dishes ever. But since I haven't seen the actually cooking process or seen the raw meat, I had no idea what to expect. So below are a list of pointers from my end for cooking and dealing with raw pork. A few of them for me to remember and not panic the next time, a few of them hopefully will help other folks cooking with pork for the first time.
Unfortunately, I don't have pictures for each of the different stages. I have to say, I was getting a little worried and taking shots were the last thing on my mind. So here goes.

  • I used pork belly. Pork belly generally comes in a single slab. But mine, the guy had cut into strips across the layers, which technically made my life easier, but since it was different to what my recipe asked for, I pondered over that a bit. It actually doesn't matter and in reality makes the process easier.
  • Pork belly ideally should come boneless. In my case, it wasn't so. Much to my dismay. The parts I thought were really hard cos they were still frozen were actually bones. However, its really easy to cut it off if you have a fillet knife. Hold one end of the bone in one hand bone on top and run the knife clean to cut through.
  • I'd asked for skinless pork belly. Now the whole buying process was a little convoluted, so I couldn't make out whether the white thing I saw on top was fat or skin, I decided to go ahead thinking it was fat. Wrong. It was skin. I realised it only after I'd cooked it for a bit. And I only realised it because I saw hair. Shudder!!!! 'How in the world am I going to serve that to folks tomorrow?' was my first thought. I never in my life knew about the hair bit. I quickly went and googled and there were articles saying torch the hair off with a blow torch. It really looked so unappealing at that point that I started wondering about my lunch party. But I'd gone to all that trouble getting the pork, So I took it out, strip by strip, and peeled the skin off with my trusty fillet knife. I felt much happier after that. Cleaner too. And back it went into the oven to continue cooking.
  • If you've never cooked pork before and all you've seen is the caramelised, dark brown coloured pork, you'll be surprised to know, at the first stage of cooking pork comes out pale. Pork belly has to be slow cooked in low heat for a while and then a short stint in really high temperatures. During the slow cooking, the meat has no colour. It slowly gains it during caramelisation of sugar and fat in high heat.
  • Pork takes a long while to cook. Especially for this recipe. Which is why I finally trusted the epicurious one over other recipes. It gave me more or less a fair idea of the time required than the other which gave me shorter duration. Mine took close to 4 hours to reach the melting texture I was looking for. I was also using a convection microwave which may or may not have affected cooking times. I kept poking and prodding every hour to check doneness. 
  • It releases a lot of fat! Pork belly is almost 95% fat. So by the time you're done with your cooking, there is a truck load of melted fat which I threw away. 
  • Cool the pork, chill it before slicing. It helps the meat hold its shape and aids even slicing. In my case, since it was sliced, it needn't really be done. But what it helped was remove the congealed fat around. 
There! Those are my pointers. I hope it helps one way or the other.

Now lets get to the actual dish. I've wanted to try pork buns for a while but I'm not making it to NY in a long time. And so I thought I'd make it at home. I'm more inspired by the Asian cuisine anyway and am always interested in baos and other steamed buns. It's an interesting combination of textures and flavours. Pillowy soft buns, caramelised sweet melting pork, tang from the hoisin, fresh crunchy onions and cucumbers.. All in all, it adds up. I'm going to split it into pork separate and buns separate. If you're masterful enough to do both at the same time, good. But I think this is easier for me to plan my time.

The original recipe is from here. And I haven't varied too much from it.

For Pork


1 kilo skinned pork belly, cut into quarters.
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
41/2 cups water
1/2 cup chicken stock

Dissolve sugar & salt in 4 cups water.
Place pork in a large, deep dish, and pour brine over it. Cover and chill in refrigerator for 6-12 hours.
Preheat oven to 150 C
Drain the brine solution from pork. Transfer pork to 9" square baking dish.
Pour chicken stock &  1/2 cup water over pork.
Cover the whole dish tightly with foil on top.
Roast until pork is very tender. About 21/2 to 3 hours.
Turn up heat to 230C.
Remove foil and roast for 30 minutes till fat is golden.
Drain excess fat.
Cool and then chill covered in fridge until ready to use.
When ready to eat, remove from fridge, slice evenly in 1/4" thickness.
Heat through in pan over stove or in covered in oven till really hot. Now you're ready to serve.

For Buns (makes 16 buns)


1 cup warm water
1 tbsp active dry yeast
3 tbsp +1 tsp sugar
pinch salt
3+1/2 cups plain flour
1+1/2 tsp baking powder
Oil for greasing.

Stir together warm water, sugar and yeast. Be sure your yeast is active, else let stand till mix is foamy. 5-10 mins. If mix is not foamy by then, start over.
Stir flour and yeast mix together till a dough forms.
Knead the dough about 8-10 mins till it becomes smooth and supple.
Lightly oil a dish and place the kneaded dough. Cover and rest till it doubles in size. About 2 hours.
Punch out air and tip the risen dough to a floured surface. Flatten it out to a rough disk.
Sprinkle baking powder in center and gather all corners together.
Knead dough till baking powder is completely incorporated.
Back into oiled dish and let rise another 30 mins.
Meanwhile cut 16 pieces of parchment paper.
Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces. Just keep splitting into half equally till you reach 16 pieces.
Shape them all into even balls.
On a floured surface, roll out each ball into an oval shape of 6"x 3".
Brush oil on one half of the oval. Keep a chopstick at the center and gently fold over. Do not pinch. Place on parchment, cover and let rise 30 mins.
Steam the buns (still in parchment paper) in batches. 3 mins should do.
Take out and cover in towel to keep warm till ready to serve.

To serve, Split bun open, spread Hoisin sauce lightly on bottom half of the bun. Sandwich bun with 2 pork slices, cucumbers & scallions.

I hope I've covered all steps.

Excuse the pic. It was the last lone bun I could save to click an image. The rest of it got demolished by my family. Felt quite happy that despite all the worries and scares, it turned out quite ok and people enjoyed it.

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