Like most all pork belly dishes, this is a winner. What I show here is based on the Serious Eats version, but there are many others floating around, as it’s a popular dish.
From what I’ve read about gua bao, the Asian pickled mustard greens is key to this dish. Sadly, I was unable to easily find these, so I substituted fresh spinach leaves. The presentation was still good because the pork belly is the star of the show, but using the pickled mustard greens would theoretically take them to the next level. They will still be delicious without the mustard greens.
If you can find the pickled mustard greens, by all means, include them in this delicious dish.
What you’ll need for the Pork Belly
- 1-2T vegetable or peanut oil
- 1 lb. slab skin-on (or off) pork belly, cut into 2-inch-wide, 3-inch-long strips, then sliced 0.25-inch thick
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 0.5-inch-slices fresh ginger (peeled or unpeeled)
- 1 star anise pod (optional)
- 1 small fresh red chili, such as a Thai chili (also optional)
- 2T rock, brown or raw sugar (I used shaved palm sugar)
- 0.25 cups Asian rice wine (sake)
- 0.5t five-spice powder
- 0.25 cups dark soy sauce
- 0.25 cups light soy sauce
- 4 cups water (3 cups, if you’re using a 10-inch pan instead of 12-inch)
What you’ll need for the buns and toppings
- 0.25 cups roasted, unsalted peanuts
- 1.5t rock, brown, or raw sugar
- 8 fresh or frozen Chinese-style steamed buns (these can be found in Asian grocery stores, and they’ll most likely be frozen)
- 6 sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems chopped
- 4T coarsely chopped Asian pickled mustard greens (these can presumably be found in Asian grocery stores)
What to do for the pork belly
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large frypan or wok. I used a 12-inch cast iron frypan, but a 10-inch frypan should work, too. Just use less water for the final cooking step. Fry the pork belly until lightly browned on the bottom—about 3 minutes. Then turn the pork belly and cook until lightly browned on the other side—about 2 minutes longer. Transfer the pork belly to a plate and set aside.
In the same frypan, add the garlic and ginger, then cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until fragrant. Be really careful not to scorch the garlic. Add the star anise and chili (if using), and the sugar, then cook, stirring, until the sugar is melted and bubbling—about 2 minutes.
Be careful with this next step, as it will likely cause the oil to sputter and splash. It will also temporarily seize the melted sugar. Add the rice wine and bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves—about 2 minutes. Next, add the five-spice powder, the soy sauces, and water. Bring everything to a boil, mixing until the sugar has re-melted.
Return the pork belly to the frypan and reduce the heat to low. Cover the frypan, then cook the pork belly until it is very tender—at least 1 hour or preferably 2 hours. I cooked mine for about 1.25 hours, and it turned out perfectly.
What to do for the buns and toppings
While the pork belly is cooking, you can prep for the rest of the sandwiches. Combine the peanuts and sugar in a blender or food processor and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides, until the mixture resembles a coarse powder—about 1 minute.
When the pork belly is done and you’re ready to assemble the sandwiches, set a steamer over a pan of boiling water. Add the buns and cover the steamer, cooking them according to the instructions on the package. If they’re frozen, they’ll need to cook for about 10-12 minutes. I recommend lining the steamer cooking decks with parchment paper to prevent the buns from sticking to the bamboo.