Gua bao are small meat filled steamed bun sandwiches popular in Taiwan, China, and Japan. Stewed pork belly is a traditional gua bao filling and they are often topped with crushed peanuts and some type of pickled vegetable. When done right, gua bao are tiny porky wonders that fit in the palm of your hand.
I started thinking about a barbecue version of gua bao on a recent visit to a popular sushi restuarant with my wife for our anniversary. The restaurant offered pork belly gua bao as an appetizer and — being a sucker for pork belly — I couldn’t keep myself from ordering up a batch. Unfortunately, the gua bao failed to impress — the pork belly being tough and bland. Luckily, the sushi to follow was excellent, but I just couldn’t shake the underwhelming gua bao, so I decided to make my own smoked pork belly gua bao.
I knew I wanted barbecue flavors, but with an Asian flair, so I started with a Chinese Five-Spice based rub I adapted from Steven Raichlin’s 5-4-3-2-1 rub. The rub ingredients are the same, with the exception of trading out some of the brown sugar for Turbinado sugar because I like how it lends a sugary crunch to the finished product.
To keep the Asian theme going, I made a barbecue sauce with a base of hoisin for its sweetness and umami complexity. The gochujang, a Korean fermented chili sauce, and chili garlic sauce bring the heat and honey adds another dimension of sweetness. The soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil round things out to create a rich and complex sauce with a spicy kick.
Because the gua bao buns are soft and the pork belly so tender, it made sense to incorporate some texture into the dish with the pickled vegetables. The thinly sliced cucumber and julienned carrots add the perfect amount of crunch and acidity to cut through that rich fatty pork belly.
The cilantro garnish may seem out of place if you usually associate it with Mexican cuisine. However, Chinese parsley, the other name for cilantro, is commonly used in South Asian cuisine and is actually the leaves of the coriander plant. If you don’t like cilantro, feel free to leave if off. Either way, you’ve got a pretty damn delicious way to enjoy smoked pork belly. Enjoy!
These gua bao might just become your favorite way to consume smoked pork belly. Smoky and sweet pork belly meets tart pickled vegetables and a rich Asian barbecue sauce for a little slice of heaven in your palm.
- 24 frozen gua bao buns (see notes)
- 3 pounds uncured skinless pork belly
- Yellow mustard
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
- 3 Korean red cayenne chiles, sliced thinly on a bias (optional)
For the rub:
- 4 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons Turbinado sugar (e.g., Sugar in the Raw)
- 2 tablespoons chinese five-spice powder
- 1 tablespoon granulated onion
For the pickled vegetables:
- 2 medium carrots, julienned (see notes)
- 2 medium cucumbers, very thinly sliced
- 1 cup rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the sauce:
- 3/4 cup hoisin sauce
- 1/2 cup gochujang (see notes)
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce (see notes)
Make the sauce:
- Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often to prevent burning.
- Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water as necessary to thin out the sauce if it’s too thick. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before using. The sauce should keep for several weeks if tightly covered and refrigerated.
Pickle the vegetables:
- In a medium bowl, whisk the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar and salt is dissolved. Add the carrots and cucumber to the bowl and toss to coat all the pieces with the pickling liquid.
- Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The pickled veggies can be made ahead of time. They will keep for a few days if covered tightly and refrigerated.
Smoke the pork belly:
- Set up your smoker for a 225°F cook.
- Apply a thin coat of yellow mustard to the pork belly. This helps the rub to stick.
- Combine all the rub ingredients in a small bowl, breaking up any clumps with your hands. You’ll have more rub than you need. Store any extra rub in a tightly sealed container for up to 6 months.
- Using a shaker or other device of your choosing, generously coat the pork belly in the rub. Place the pork belly in the smoker, fat side up.
- Smoke the pork belly, rotating as necessary for even cooking, until a temperature probe inserted into the thickest part of the belly reads about 200°F, about 6-8 hours. The probe should also slide in very easily, as if the pork belly is a warm stick of butter. Take it off the smoker and let rest for 30 minutes.
Make the gua bao:
- Slice the pork belly crosswise into 1/2 inch thick slices. Cut each slice into smaller pieces that will fit nicely into a gua bao bun. Try to resist the temptation to eat all the pork belly yourself during this step.
- (Optional step) Crisp up each slice in a cast iron pan over medium heat, until both sides are golden brown. Remove the pork belly from the pan and set aside on a paper towel lined plate. You’ll probably need to do this in batches unless you have multiple cast iron pans.
- Working in batches, steam the buns according to the package directions. (see notes)
- Toss the pieces of pork belly in a bowl with some of the asian barbecue sauce, reserving some sauce to spread on the buns.
- Paint a little sauce on the inside of each bun, then add some of the pickled carrots and cucumbers. Nestle a slice of pork belly into the bun and top with the cilantro and sliced chiles.
- Frozen gua bao buns and Korean cayenne chiles can usually be found at an Asian market. You can substitute for any other type of small red chile pepper that you like. You can also make your own buns, but that is beyond the scope of this recipe.
- To julienne a carrot means to cut it into small matchstick size pieces. A mandoline can be very useful here. You could also use pre-shredded carrots from the store, but freshly cut carrots taste better.
- Gochujang is a fermented chili paste. It can also be found in Asian markets or higher end grocery stores.
- Chili garlic sauce can most likely be found at your local grocery store. A common brand is Huy Fong, the same folks that make Sriracha sauce.
- I like to use a steamer basket for steaming the buns. You should be able to find them at an Asian market or online.
Keywords: Gua Bao, smoked pork belly, smoked pork, asian bbq, pickled vegetables