Why It Works
- While it can take up to two hours, braising the pork belly is very easy: It's simply browned in a skillet and then cooked in the same pan with an aromatic broth until tender.
- Traditional recipes often call for rock sugar, but this version offers easy substitution options like brown sugar.
Despite all the iterations found on menus across the United States, there is only one true Taiwanese pork belly bun, or gua bao. The classic fluffy steamed bun is filled with a rich, meaty, salty, savory slice of braised pork belly, but it's the three accouterments served with it that are its true signature. To be considered the real thing, gua bao must always have pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and peanut powder.
Let's go over each of the fillings. First, there's the pork belly, which is cut into bun-sized slices and then red-braised, which means it's stewed in soy sauce and rice wine that's flavored with five-spice powder and other aromatics. This style of pork is commonly found on Taiwanese tables, and is often served with sides that help cut the richness, such as lightly cooked vegetables and/or pickled vegetables like mustard greens.
That's why pickled mustard greens are an integral part of gua bao—it's the classic pairing in bite-sized portions. These pickles are made by lacto-fermenting a head of mustard greens (a process similar to making sauerkraut, kimchi, or Jewish deli pickles), which gives them a tangy flavor and turns them a dark, not entirely beautiful lizardy green color. The greens are then shredded or finely chopped.
To balance the fermented flavor and drab color of the mustard greens, fresh, bright green cilantro is added as well. Cilantro is a common topping in Taiwan, sprinkled on everything from soup to ice cream. When chopped, it has a way of sticking to whatever it's on, which is especially helpful in the case of a somewhat messy bun. To maintain its crisp bite, the cilantro is typically chopped with its stems.
Lastly, the bun is topped with peanut powder. Unlike the crushed peanuts commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisines, Taiwanese peanut powder is blended with rock sugar, and ground quite fine. You can make it yourself in a food processor or blender, swapping in brown sugar or raw sugar for rock sugar instead.
All combined, the Taiwanese pork belly bun is a messy, colorful, glorious combination of salty, sweet, pungent, and fresh flavors, with multiple textures to boot.
For the Pork Belly:
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
One (1-pound) slab skin-on pork belly, cut into 2-inch strips, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 medium cloves garlic, crushed
2 (1/8th-inch) slices fresh ginger (unpeeled)
1 star anise pod (optional)
1 small fresh red chile, such as Thai chile (optional)
2 tablespoons rock, brown or raw sugar
1/4 cup Asian rice wine
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder (see note)
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1/4 cup light soy sauce
4 cups water
For the Buns and Toppings:
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts
1 tablespoon rock, brown, or raw sugar (see note)
6 fresh or frozen Chinese-style steamed buns (see note)
6 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems chopped
4 tablespoons coarsely chopped Asian pickled mustard greens (see note)
For the Pork Belly: Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet or wok. Cook pork belly until lightly browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip pork belly and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer pork belly to a plate and set aside.
In the same skillet, add garlic and ginger and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until fragrant. Add star anise and chile (if using), and sugar and cook, stirring, until the sugar is melted and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Add rice wine and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Add five-spice powder, dark and light soy sauces, and water and bring to a boil.
Return pork belly to the skillet and reduce heat to low. Cover skillet and cook until pork belly is very tender, at least 1 hour or preferably 2 hours.
For the Buns and Toppings: Meanwhile, combine peanuts and sugar in a blender or food processor and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides, until the mixture resembles a coarse powder, about 1 minute.
Set a steamer over a pot of boiling water. Add buns, cover steamer and cook until buns are heated through and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
To Serve: Spread pickled mustard greens inside each steamed bun and set a piece of pork belly on top of mustard greens. Top pork belly with a pinch of chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of peanut powder. Serve immediately.
Find five-spice powder, fresh or frozen Chinese-style steamed buns, jarred pickled mustard greens, and rock sugar at Asian grocery stores.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 2 to 3|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 42g||54%|
|Saturated Fat 12g||59%|
|Total Carbohydrate 54g||20%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||24%|
|Total Sugars 21g|
|Vitamin C 64mg||321%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|