刈包 Gua Bao – Taiwanese Braised Pork Buns
I love visiting night markets in Taiwan for a variety of reasons. There is always so much to see, smell, eat and buy! A large part of Taiwan’s food culture is characterised by its night markets.They are so vibrant and constantly bustling with activity! For many, a visit to a night market in Taipei is often the last event on one’s tourist itinerary. And in the country’s capital city, there are indeed many to choose from. From the very popular ones which tourists flock to like Shi Lin Night Market 士林夜市 and Rao He Street Night Market 饶河街夜市, to the more 在地人 “known-only-by-locals” ones like Yan San Night Market 延三夜市 and Nan Ji Chang Night Market 南机场夜市, there are easily close to a dozen joints to choose from. Many of these night markets have their own “specialities” which draw crowds from near and far every night. Some go for deep fried chicken cutlets 炸鸡排, while others are there to feast on oyster mee sua 蚵仔麵線 or crispy steamed buns 生煎包. One of the foods I am always game to try whenever I see it at a night market is 刈包 Gua Bao. Also scripted as 割包, it is often called a “Taiwanese hamburger” 台式漢堡 by tourists. And there are many good versions around as well! There are those who maintained the tradition of making 刈包 by serving thick slabs of braised pork belly sandwiched by a piping hot and fluffy steamed bun, like 源芳刈包 at Hua Xi Street Night Market 华西街夜市 and 石家刈包 at Tonghua Street Night Market 通化街夜市, while others like 蓝家刈包 at Shida Night Market 师大夜市shred the meat into bitesize morsels for the convenience of diners. I prefer the former as it seems more hearty and visually appealing to have a whole piece of meat encased within. Whichever the case, the 刈包 offered at these joints promises a delightful palate experience. But the truth is, 刈包 is so easy to make at home and a sure favorite amongst many be it the young and old, especially during family gatherings and events.
刈包/割包 is a very traditional Taiwanese snacks which has its roots across the Straits in Fujian. In the Min 闽 dialect, the word 割 is pronounced “gua” which is scripted as “ㄍㄨㄚˋ” in 注音符号, a phonological script used in Taiwan for documenting the pronunciation of chinese characters, similar to 汉语拼音 hanyu pinyin system. This gives rise to the way which it is written as “刈包”. To the traditional Taiwanese, it has a more “vivid” nickname called “hor gah tee” 虎咬豬 as the wobbly and collage-rich piece of braised pork belly encased within the steamed white bun sandwich likens a piece of meat being held in the mouth of a tiger. In Taiwan, 刈包 is an absolute must on the dinner tables at year-end corporate feasts locally known as buay geh 尾牙. It is a time when the company would treat their employees and workers to a good meal, often accompanied by a performance and of course, lucky draw with really attractive prizes, including company shares! So why the practice to eat 刈包 during 尾牙? Well, in the corporate world, one is often faced with the act of sweet talk or sometimes even the dilemma of telling (white) lies 善意谎言 in order to close a business deal or to be on good terms with fellow workers and colleagues or get into superiors’ good books. The ”lies” told throughout the year, are symbolically represented by the pieces of braised pork belly, wrapped (up) by the steamed bun and eaten at the end of the year-end feast, in hope to “nullify” the effects of these “untruths”. Purely psychologically if you ask me! But one thing which is definitely true is how yummy these 刈包 are!
刈包 is essentially a spinoff from a very popular Hokkien delight called kong bak bao “焢肉包”. “焢” is a word in Min cuisine to mean to braise large pieces of meat slowly over prolonged periods of time. This ensures that while the meat remains intact on the whole, the texture as been completely broken down until it is just wobbly and uber soft. Sheer ndulgence! The choice of meat is of course important, not too lean with good fat distribution. Avoid meat which are void of fat and it would become too dry and fibrous at the end of the braising process.
The large chunks of meat are firstly cooked in boliing water for a good 10-15 min until they are thoroughly cooked. This poaching process first breaks down the structure of the meat after cooking it to prevent it from losing water during the actual braising. Braising meats is a very direct process and requires hardly any effort. All that is left is a game of time and patience to get the meats down the desired texture and taste.
Unlike the traditional kong bak bao 焢肉包 which calls for only an accompaniment of chinese lettuce, Taiwanese 刈包 Gua Bao also includes, grated peanuts 花生碎, pickled greens 酸菜 and coriander leaves 芫荽叶. These three components extends the dimension and depth of the dish tremendously making it so much more interesting, causing the regular kong bak bao 焢肉包 taste rather plain and run-in-the-mill in comparison. I love the combination and has never looked back at kong bak bao with only chinese lettuce since.
刈包 Gua Bao – Taiwanese Braised Pork Buns Recipe (10-12 servings)
1 kg of good pork belly
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 tbsp five spice powder
2 tsp ground pepper
2-4 tbsp of good dark soya sauce (depending on the saltiness and colour intensity of the soya sauce used)
50g rock sugar
salt to taste
water as required
Condiments and Garnishing
100g storebought roasted cocktail peanuts (salted)
1 tbsp fine grained sugar
200g pickled greens (酸菜) 【NOTE： do not use salted vege (咸菜)]
A few sprigs of coriander leaves (芫荽叶)
1-2 heads of chinese lettuce (生菜）
For homemade white steamed sandwich bun recipe, please refer here.
To pot or wok of boiling water, add whole slab of pork belly. Return to boil before lowering flame to medium low and cook for 15-20 min.
Rinse the pork belly slab briefly under running water to remove and impurities or scum. Leave to cool down. Discard pork belly cooking water.
When it has cooled down sufficiently to be handled, Cut the pork belly slab into large pieces.
In a deep pot, add pork belly slices and sufficient water to cover the pork belly by about 1 inch or so. Let the water come to a boil. Skim off any scum one the surface of the water before add all the other meat braising ingredients.
Let the mixture come to a boil once more before lowering flame, cover with lid and let it simmer for 30 min.
After 30 min, taste the sauce and adjust with more soya sauce, five-spice powder, pepper, sugar or salt as required. The aroma of five-spice powder should be assertive.
Test the texture of the meat slices and continue to boil for another 20-30 min under very low heat until the meat pieces are thoroughly soft and wobbly. Actual cooking time depends on the thickness of the slabs and texture desired which is a largely personal preference.
To prepared grated peanuts, pound peanuts with sugar until they are coarsely grated. Pulse the peanuts with the sugar if a food blender is used. Do not grind the peanut completely to powdered form to prevent loss of texture and crunch.
Serve by sandwiching the braised pork belly slabs between steamed chinese white buns and chinese lettuce. Garnish with grated peanut, pickled vegetables and coriander leaves.