Zhuge Liang (189-234 A.D.) may not a household name in the West, but he was a seminal figure in Chinese history. He served as a lobbyist, logistics officer, regent and warrior; he is credited with developing the repeating crossbow, a hot air balloon used for military signaling, and an early version of the wheelbarrow. His primary contribution to human culture, however, dwarfs all his other accomplishments: He invented the pork bun.
In their modern incarnation, baozi (or bao buns) are fluffy, steamed buns made from wheat flour. They come in two sizes, roughly two and four inches across respectively. The smaller version is commonly associated with dim sum, which originated in Guangdong province, and may be stuffed with meat, seafood, vegetables or custard. Larger baozi are first filled and then folded over, making them quite portable—the feature that most appealed to Zhuge Liang’s armies. Although the fillings also vary, one has emerged as the baozi signature: pork.
Bao buns filled with char siu pork are one of the great triumphs of Cantonese cuisine. To make char siu (literally, “fork roast”) the pork is slow-cooked in a mixture of honey, hoisin and soy sauces, and Chinese five-spice powder. When sliced, the meat is juicy and tender on the inside, with a crunchy outer glaze reminiscent of barbecue. The loin, shoulder or belly may be used, depending on the preferred final texture.
The modern version that trumps all others is the pork bun first served a decade ago at the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, and which has become a staple at eateries throughout the Momofuku empire. David Chang uses all-natural pork belly from a family farm in New Jersey; the meat is cured overnight before being roasted for hours in a slow oven. At the Noodle Bar, the dish is so popular that an entire kitchen station is devoted to it, with separate cooks who specialize in roasting, bun preparation and assembly.
Like all celebrity, the appeal of the pork bun is a double-edged sword. “It’s weird to be ‘famous’ for something,” Chang has written. “Can you imagine being Neil Diamond and having to sing ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’ every time you get onstage for the rest of your life? Neither can I. But if Momofuku is ‘famous’ for something, it’s these steamed pork buns.”
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014; for more information, go to amazon.com