Pork Belly Char Siew Bun

Sunday, June 26, 2011

 (Photo by Andrea Kong)
(Ed note: I have added details on how to make the bun recipe)

I have to cook to shoot and write.

But if I cook too often, I will not have time or energy for the latter. This has been the case in recent times.

The month of June, being school vacation is also traditionally 'stand-down' month for my church. It is a period to clear my leave, which is something I do not do enough on an annual basis.

Somehow, I ended up having to cook for three dinner parties within a short time: a BBQ party for my wife's home cell members, a thanksgiving cum fund-raising dinner where I met some interesting folks and the third one where I found  myself cooking for almost total strangers who were drawn together by an interest in good local food.

I love meeting people. I love eating with people. And I love it most if I can cook for them.

In all three parties, I wanted to feature my mum's recipes. Bored as I may be with it, one frequent request is for Auntie Ruby's Char Siew. It goes best with rice. But what if you have other courses lined up and "Char Siew Fan" or rice doesn't go? I could offer it as a plate to your mouth experience, as I did for the Labour Day's meal. That is perfectly fine.             

I stumbled across a famous pork belly bun recipe online. And that started an interesting experiment which my guests over the 3 parties were more than happy to be a part of.

David Chang is a renowned Korean chef who has made his mark through his chain of Momofuku restaurants in New York. He has also published a popular cookbook with the same name. One of his hot-selling dishes is the Pork Belly Bun.

It is a simple idea which we here in Singapore or Malaysia will be familiar with. We know Char Siew goes well with scallions (spring onions) and cucumber. We also love our Char Siew paos from Tiong Bahru, which I have found to be just as good as some good Malaysian ones. And we have all eaten 'Kong Bak' buns.

David Chang put this all together. And he has New Yorkers salivating and lining up for it. 

A pork belly piece, stuffed into a bun with cucumber slices and scallions should be a no-brainer right? If so, why has this dish not been made and popularised by a Singaporean or Malaysian chef?  

Perhaps it is a question of one's setting and culture. You try to make and sell it here, and someone will compare it with local alternatives. You sell it in a cosmopolitan city like NY, and you get everyone gaga-ing over it as there are simply no competitors. 

Perhaps it is also a question of being able to 'think out of a box' in terms of culinary and marketing ideas. Like the Kung Fu Panda phenomena, we need to learn from the West on how to market our own culinary culture.

This is one reason why we can be proud of the kaya toast phenomena. It is simple breakfast staple which could have faded into oblivion. But through creative marketing and culinary common sense, these stalls are now found almost everywhere. A few years ago, I asked whether someone could create a prata cum teh tarik fast food combi and 'fast food chain' it. I think this idea is worth marketing and the world is waiting. Or, satay made the Kajang way. It should be on the world stage by now.

Barbecued Char Siew

Inspired by this Momofuku recipe, I tried out this Char Siew Bun idea. For the BBQ, I cooked the Char Siew in the wok beforehand, but leaving the charring part to the bbq pit. For the other dinner parties, I made it as a DIY experience. I am still working at the recipe but already, the response has been very positive.   

We start with what your teeth will have to sink into first before you hit the glorious belly - the bun.

Bun Recipe

I will detail here an adapted recipe from Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan, (Clarkson Potter, 2009), using the bread-maker. I adapted from here, which has more details on David's recipe. And for a pictorial view of how to make the buns, go here.

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups water, at room temperature
  • 4 1/4 cups bread flour
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons nonfat dry milk powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Rounded 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/ teaspoon Bread Improver agent (as in pic)
  • 1/3 cup rendered pork fat or vegetable shortening, at room temperature, plus more for shaping the buns, as needed
  1. Combine all the ingredients into the breadmaker tray. Make the dough using the right selection for your maker (mine is 'specialty dough").
  2. After it is done, take out the dough and punch it down and turn it out onto a clean work surface. Using a bench scraper or a knife, divide the dough in half, then divide each half into 4 equal pieces. Gently roll the pieces into logs, then cut each log into 5 pieces, making 40 pieces total. Roll each piece into a ball. Cover the armada of little dough balls with a draping of plastic wrap and allow them to rest and rise for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, cut out fifty 4-inch squares of parchment paper. Coat a chopstick with whatever fat you're working with.
  4. Flatten one ball with the palm of your hand, then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a 4-inch-long oval. Lay the greased chopstick across the middle of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form the bun shape. Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and put the bun on a square of parchment paper. Stick it back under the plastic wrap (or a dry kitchen towel) and form the rest of the buns. Let the buns rest for 30 to 45 minutes: they will rise a little.
  5. Set up a steamer on the stove. Use bamboo steamer if you have it, as these absorbs moisture and keep the buns dryer. Working in batches so you don't crowd the steamer, steam the buns on the parchment squares for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment. You can use the buns immediately (reheat them for a minute or so in the steamer if necessary) or allow to cool completely, then seal in plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to a few months. Re-steam frozen buns for 2 to 3 minutes, until puffy, soft, and warmed all the way through.

The only thing I added to David's recipe is half a teaspoon of  "bread improver super tex" which I bought from Phoon Huat. It is a high gluten leavening agent which helps to fluff up the bread. I also preferred larger buns and made 40 out of the recipe instead of the recommended 50. I used a breadmaker to make the dough but it turned out very well too when I used my hands to mix and knead the dough. My good wife is better in baking and exact measurements (this is not the recipe for aggaration) and she made most of it.

Now, if you don't have a wife or find this too much of a bother, you can easily get ready made ones from the local supermart.

Bread Improver agent from Phoon Huat

The dough, after 90 mins in her maker

Apportioned dough left to rise again
                                                                                                    Folded dough

                                                                                                      Steamed buns

Char Siew
David Chang's recipe brines the meat beforehand for 10 hours or so, roasts it for about 2 hours in an oven and then fridge it as it is easier to cut the belly when it is cold. That can take up to more than a day. I used my Mum's Char Siew recipe which braises the meat in the wok, something that took about an hour to do. I had little difficulty cutting it after I let it cool off, without the need for fridging. As I have not used the original pork belly recipe from Momofuku, I can't compare it with my Mum's.

Sliced CS (Photo by Andrea Kong)
David's recipe involves pickling the cucumber with salt and sugar. I did try this but found the cucumber pieces getting watery very quickly. Maybe it is the humidity of our weather. A bit of salt and sugar does improve it but go easy.

Leslie has blogged about the superb premium soy sauce from Kwong Woh Hing. The sesame sauce they make is also superb and I used it as a spread in this bun. 

Kwong Woh Hing's sesame sauce is incredibly good.
In all three parties, the responses from the guests were good. The BBQ version was almost sensational.

Will I make this again? Perhaps. I am rather tired of eating Char Siew but if it pleases my guests, why not.

This bun makes for great finger-food. If I can improve and make it neater, I can imagine what a hit it will be in parties and Alpha Courses. Or when I next watch a Man U match with some friends.

It took a Korean chef to turn it from good to great. May more local chefs or food entrepreneurs be more creative and see the potential in some of our local cuisine and get them onto the world's stage.

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  1. I've tried the Momofuku pork belly buns, and they are indeed to die for. Yours looks equally tempting... making me drool right now...

  2. You did? Wow. I hope to try it one day.

  3. Wow, this sure looks good, but just to check, is the company's name for the sesame sauce "Kwong Woh Hing" instead of "Kwong Hing"? It's because i found the label familiar and was wondering if i had seen it before..

  4. Thanks for the alert. It's Kwong Woh Hing

  5. wow! you make one great cooking Canon....amazing! can't wait to visit you & have a 1st hand taste of your cooking

  6. I had my first attempt at the pork belly version but the fat ended up super chewy (in fact we had to cut those top bits off).

    Any idea where I might have gone wrong?

  7. Emy - The skin needs to be remove for Char Siew. That may be the chewy part.

  8. FC-your blog is amazing. just came across it - am inspired to try out the US$160 SV machine you talked about, but that means also getting an old-fashioned rice cooker...my only concern is health-wise, i.e. whether chemicals fm plastic (even tho it's thick plastic) will leach into the food given the long cooking time...

    your post here is fantabulous!! would like to try to make the bun, but do you have instructions for people who don't have a bread machine? Thanks!

  9. I will be redoing this post soon for those not using bread machine. Actually, you can just knead it thoroughly and leave it to rise in a warm place...about an hour. Prepare the yeast water separately in warm water before pouring into the flour.

  10. Ok, but also looking fwd to when you nx post about the manual method. Thanks!

  11. Ok, but also looking fwd to when you nx post about the manual method. Thanks!