© 2014 marian

Bao Down

Why are pork belly buns so damned expensive? Pork belly is literally, like, $3.99 per pound and those buns have maybe an ounce of meat inside. Maybe. I don’t know if 99 Ranch Market exists outside of California, but I urge everyone to brave the hectic parking lot and non-English signage and partake of the cheap produce and seafood. It is also the only market around me that sells actual slabs of pork belly and has an amazing selection of Asian groceries. You won’t find organic anything here, I’m afraid, but you will find loads of cheap vegetables and tanks of fresh fish. So this is where my journey begins: in Daly City pushing a rickety cart (why are all the carts so rickety?) through 99 Ranch Market. I get all the major produce and meat ingredients quite easily but I get stuck trying to find the actual buns. I read a recipe on how to make your own buns on the internet somewhere, but even the Momofuku guy, David Chang, buys ready-made buns so what’s good enough for Momofuku to serve is certainly good enough for me. 99 Ranch Market has a huge frozen selection but it is not, apparently, broken into what I would consider logical sections. There is a Filipino section. A Korean section. Japanese. And so on. Then, there are frozen meats, frozen dumplings, vegetables…I ask someone where the buns are and he leads me to a freezer filled with chashu baos. No one knows what I’m talking about. I wander the store and then finally, in an open freezer section nowhere near the rest of the frozen foods that I only stopped at because it had 3 different kinds of frozen pancakes, I hit the jackpot and find the buns (gwa pao) nestled among frozen shrimp and scallion pancakes. It felt amazing. And they were on sale!

I broke down the cost of making these at home and you can have 20 buns for $18.23**! I’ve ordered them at restaurants and they’ve been at least $5 per bun. The best part about this recipe is that you have to do very little actual cooking and it looks really impressive. It’s a fun dinner concept, “Build-A-Bao”! You can set out all different kinds of toppings and have everyone get creative with their food. But it doesn’t just stop with the pork, you can serve other meats, too! Last night, we had Korean BBQ kalbi (marinated short ribs) and crispy pork belly buns and I think it went pretty well. Mark and Warren ate about 5-7 buns apiece so I will take that as a good sign.

I started off by making a brine the day before for the pork (see below for ingredients list). Brines are easy and really do keep the meat from drying out in the slow-cooker. You can make a brine on the stove or you can be lazy and zap it all together in the microwave, it doesn’t matter as long as the salt and sugar dissolve. Once the brine is cold (if you’re pressed for time, add ice cubes to cool it), add the pork belly and cover in the fridge for 12 hours. The next morning, take that pork belly and throw it into the slow-cooker on low all day. Go to work or whatever and when it’s dinner time, take it out, stick it on a broiler pan, and broil it up till the skin gets crispy (about 5-10 minutes). Slice into ¼ inch pieces. Serve with sliced jalepenos, chopped cilantro, crushed garlic peanuts, cucumbers, scallions or whatever else you want on your buns and then sit back and let everyone praise you for doing a good 10 minutes of actual cooking.

**Full disclosure: I spent an additional $75 that day on other random things at 99 Ranch. Things like Japanese candies and alcohol and yes, a whole fried crab that I ate for lunch.


1 quart water
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon 5-Spice Powder
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup kosher salt

Slow Cooker Pork Belly with Cracklin’ Skin Buns:

2-3 lb pork belly – mine cost $9.35
salt & pepper to taste
1 bag of Gwa Pao (buns) – 2 bags for $3
Cilantro – $0.69 a bunch
Jalepeno – $1.35 for 6
1 cucumber – $0.75
Scallions – $0.59
Hoisin Sauce $2.50 or you can make your own
Garlic peanuts or plain peanuts – $2.19

Total cost = $18.23
Total servings = 20
Cost per bun = $0.91




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