Way before these little parcels of steamed, fluffy white buns imploded onto the culinary scene, trendily morphing into popular Asian burgers of sorts and housing a wide varietal of fillings, there was this – the OG Kong Bak Pau.
There are many fabulous, famous renditions of pork belly buns (and stews) around the world, some piled with several crunchy adornments, the pork sourced from a special breed of hog and the bun spread with a unique concoction of umami-packed sauces, but sometimes, simplicity is all you need. A sweet, fluffy steamed bun stuffed with a meltingly tender pork belly braise. The only condiment required is the glossy, dark and sticky braising sauce.
This is my maternal grandmother’s recipe and one that’s been on our reunion table for more than 30 years. The marinading work takes all of 5 minutes and you just let the meat simmer away until it’s tender. Along with the recipe for the pork belly braise, I’m giving a couple of guidelines here that you can feel free to play around with to suit whatever pantry staples you have on hand, whatever dietary restrictions you may have, wherever you are based in….
General Stew Guidelines:
Type of Meat
Fatty pork belly is the choice cut for kong bak pau. If you’re squeamish about fat, pork shoulder is a good alternative. If not, any cut of meat suitable for a long braise would work here. Just bear in mind that depending on the type and cut you choose, the stewing time will vary.
Size of Meat
Traditionally, my grandma slices the meat up before marinating and stewing. She basically preps them from the start to fit the size of the fluffy steamed bun. If you’d like more leeway on how you want your end product to look like, start off with braising a bigger slab of meat and you can break it down later on to whatever size you deem fit. Another plus point in doing this is that if you over-stew your meat, it’s less likely to break down into mush in your stewing pot.
My grandma uses the spices here judiciously – her recipe calls for a small pinch of five-spice powder, a cinnamon stick and one star anise. If you prefer a more heavily spiced version or if you’re using say, duck or beef, feel free to up the spice level. Depending on the flavour profile you’re going for, you can also add in a chunk of aged tangerine peel or bay leaf.
My grandma braises the pork belly with a mixture of the mushroom soaking liquid (INSTANT stock, tons of umami and nothing goes to waste!) and just plain water. It results in a super flavourful gravy already. You can also use whatever stock you have on hand to amp up the flavour.
The main seasoning here is dark soy and light soy sauce. The dark soy lends deep, dark depth to the dish with its treacly sweetness. My grandma uses a red date dark soy with an old man on the front packaging. For savouriness, there’s oyster sauce and light soy. I often add a dash of fish sauce as well.
Lace Zhang’s Kong Bak Pau
1kg pork belly, thickly sliced or left in larger slabs
8 dried chinese mushrooms
6 garlic cloves, left whole with their skins on
12-14 Chinese steamed buns
For the marinade:
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
5 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Dash of white pepper
Combine all the ingredients for the marinade together and add the pork belly. Mix well, cover and leave to marinate overnight, or at least a few hours.
Soak the dried mushrooms in warm water until they soften, about 30 minutes. Squeeze excess water from the mushrooms and reserve the soaking liquid. Trim and discard the stems of the mushrooms.
Empty the marinated pork with all its marinade into a stewing pot or claypot. Add the water, the mushrooms and the mushroom soaking liquid. How much you need depends on how wide your pot is as well but you’re just looking for all the ingredients to be just submerged. Let stew over low heat, covered. After half an hour has gone by, add the garlic cloves.
The total cooking time will vary, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours if you’ve sliced up the meat. If cooking the pork belly in larger slabs, could take up to 3 hours. Check to make sure the meat is tender but not completely falling apart into mush! Top up with more water if the sauce starts to dry up. You’ll know it’s done when the meat is tender to your liking and the liquid is reduced to a flavourful, thick sauce, covering about half the contents of the pot.
Skim off any fat or scum that would have risen to the top. Taste and adjust the seasoning to account for any evaporation or addition of more liquid.
If you’ve cooked the meat in large slabs, you can now slice them into whatever size you desire before using. If going the kong bak pau route, just steam your fluffy buns and sandwich them with the meat, drizzling more sauce over the filling and sneaking in a mushroom cap or two. If not, you now have a fabulous meat stew at your disposal. For serving with noodles or just some fluffy steamed rice.