These pork buns are famous enough without an introduction from me — arguably David Chang’s most recognizable dish and the one that helped launch the Momofuku Empire. It’s always an interesting experience when you try a dish for the first time that you’ve heard about and read about over and over. I found myself trying to lower my expectations so I wouldn’t end up disappointed.
And then I took the first bite and realized that the hype is real — these things are freaking good. Not fly-to-New-York-on-a-whim-good, but definitely special-trip-to-the-Asian-market-to-get-the-steamed-buns-good.* In fact, I bought several packages of the frozen buns because I knew I would be making this one again and again. I suggest you do the same — you won’t be sorry.
What, you say? We’re not making our own buns? What kind of janky home cooking is that? I know, but bear with me. In his lengthy intro to these magical buns, the Chef Himself spends a considerable portion of his time imploring us to just buy the buns. He buys the buns. And if he buys the buns, we can buy the buns. We should buy the buns.
Because after you purchase said buns, this thing is actually pretty hands-off. The pork belly goes into a super hot oven to get it crispy on the outside, then hangs out in a low oven until it’s almost falling apart but still holding its shape. The homemade pickles come together in about three minutes using as many ingredients; and when you’re ready to eat, the buns steam up in just a few minutes. This is one where the payoff greatly exceeds the effort, and I don’t know about you but I freaking love it when that happens.
Momofuku Pork Buns
Adapted from Momofuku
For the pork belly:
6 slices pork belly (uncured, unsmoked bacon), sliced about 2” thick
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup kosher salt
For the pickles:
1 hothouse (seedless) cucumber
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
For the final assembly:
8 tablespoons hoisin sauce
¼ cup scallions, sliced thin
8 frozen Chinese buns, thawed
For the pork:
Place the pork belly slices on a rimmed baking sheet and pour the salt and sugar over them. Toss them around the sheet with your hands until the pork is nicely coated with the salt and sugar. Discard any extra salt/sugar mixture. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and leave to cure in the fridge for at least 6 hours, but no more than 24 hours (liquid will accumulate in the bottom of the sheet pan as the pork cures — this is what we want to happen. Make sure to drain [no need to rinse] before proceeding to the next step).
Preheat your oven to 450°F. Gently place the pork in the oven, being careful not to tip any of the slices over as you do — we want the fat side to remain up. Bake for 45 minutes, until you’ve rendered a good deal of fat and the top is golden brown. Take the pork out of the oven and reduce the temperature to 250°F. With a pair of tongs, gently flip the pork belly slices over until they’re laying flat and are nestled closely together but not overlapping. Slide the pork back into the oven and bake for 1 hour, until the pork is tender, but still holding its shape. A good way to know if you’re there is to gently poke a finger into the meat — it should feel like poking a pillow; like it has some nice give, but won’t fall apart. When fully cooled, halve the slices as needed to fit the buns.
Meanwhile, make the pickles:
With a very sharp knife, or on a mandolin (my personal choice), slice the cucumber thin. In a medium sized bowl, combine the sugar, salt and vinegar. Add the cucumbers and, with your hands, toss them around until you’re sure that each individual slice is coated with the seasoning. Wrap with plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble the pork buns (the pickles should be ready to go in about an hour). You will definitely have pickles left over — they are delicious on literally anything, or feel free to halve the pickle recipe and use the other half of the cucumber as you wish.
Steam the buns and assemble the dish:
You can steam the buns in any steaming apparatus you happen to own: a lot of pot and pan sets come with steamer inserts, as do a lot of rice cookers. I have used both of these for this dish (sometimes simultaneously if I’m cooking these for more people), and they work great. In general, these only take about 3-5 minutes per batch, once you have a nice steam going. The downside is, you may only be able to fit 2 buns per steamer basket, depending on the size of your buns. Thankfully, they hold their heat well for a few minutes before they’re sliced if you tent them with some foil in between batches. Once you’re ready to plate, cut the steamed buns in half the same way you would sandwich bread.
Place the bottom half of 2 buns on the plate and spread them with 2 teaspoons each of the hoisin. Top with 2 slices of pork belly, pickles and scallions. Complete with the top half of the bun and serve immediately.
Serves 4 as a main course