Food Experiment: Banh mi baos!

Whew, it’s been a while since I’ve written, eh? My apologies, I’ve been a bit lazy since I’ve come back from Spain! I’m back though, and with a delicious and super easy recipe for you guys to try out 🙂

After having eaten them all the time since I was a child, I’m a pretty big fan of baos. This Chinese treat—a simple, inexpensive (usually steamed) bread bun—is stuffed with different fillings and served in a number of different formats. You have your steamed barbecue pork buns, your baked sweet egg custard buns, and your clam-shaped buns filled with lots of toppings. In recent years, the steamed bao has become quite a popular street food item in the United States, where you have a steamed clam-shaped bun with fillings from tender caramelized pork belly to fried soft tofu. This steamed bao is like a blank slate, allowing you to let you use your culinary imagination to fill it with whatever you’d like.

In the Bay Area, you can find baos pretty much easily in Chinese dim sum restaurants and at food trucks like Chairman Bao. In Colorado, it’s a little harder, so I started missing baos recently since I haven’t had them in a while. Then a few weeks ago, while I was doing my weekly perusing of the Asian supermarket, I had a thought. “Why don’t I make my own bao?!” I remembered when I was a kid, my mom sometimes bought frozen pre-made plain baos to steam at home so we could eat with roast duck she bought from a Chinese BBQ place.

I could find and use those frozen bao buns and just create a delicious filling! But then the question became: what should I make?!

Pork belly is usually a popular filling for these baos, so I figured I’d want to go in that direction to try out this homemade bao journey. A lot of the recipes I saw online used Chinese 5-spice for Chinese-style pork belly and ribs though, and while that sounds delicious, I’m not as familiar with cooking with those flavors. If I had chosen that route, what next after making the pork belly? What would be the filling? I had no idea. Then one day while browsing through Instagram, I was reminded of Vietnamese thịt kho. Thịt kho (translated as “braised meat”) is a Vietnamese dish with braised pork belly and eggs that is usually served duringTết (Lunar New Year). You can eat it all throughout the year, but it’s generally popular duringTết. Anywho, I’ve eaten this dish my entire life, so I’m very familiar with these flavors. This could be a great dish to try my bao experiment with!

But what about the toppings? Pork belly is obviously fatty and rich, so you’d need something acidic to cut through the fattiness. What else is more Vietnamese than pickled carrots and daikon? As I began thinking about this more, I decided a bánh mì inspired bao would be the best choice, as all the ingredients would perfectly balance the dish. You have the pickled carrots and daikon for the acidity, the cilantro for some fresh herby flavor, and the jalapeño for a little kick. I also chose to add cucumber for some extra crunch and freshness, and some green onion for some sharpness to each bite. End result? Absolutely delicious!

This recipe is super easy! It really just involves julienning vegetables and letting things sit in a slow cooker, so I really wanted to share this with you guys. I’ll be trying more fillings in the future, but until those come out, try this one and let me know what you think!

Notes about this recipe!

This recipe technically can take 2 days. I usually like prepping all the slow cooker stuff the night before, then wake up the next morning to my apartment smelling like braised pork belly haha. I think you could probably do this in 4-5 hours in the slow cooker on high, but ideally, cook for 8 hours on low or have this cooking overnight. The reason why you want to do a slower cook is that the low but constant heat helps break down the collagen and protein differently than at a high heat. When you have a high heat, the proteins contract and cook quickly, leaving you with tougher meat. You definitely want tender pork belly for this, so the low and slow method is best. Don’t rush this one!

For the meat, I bought the pork belly in pre-cut chunks at the Korean supermarket (H-Mart!) but if you can’t find pre-cut chunks, it’s perfectly fine to just get a big piece and cut them yourself. Just make sure you’re getting the thicker cut of pork belly, not the slices like bacon. The piece of pork belly should be at least 1” in thickness.

Coconut juice is needed for this recipe and a VERY specific one is needed. Ideally, the Coco Rico soda is used for cooking the pork belly. However, I realize this can be difficult to find sometimes, since I myself had issues finding the soda in Denver. There are a few alternatives you can get. When I made this, I ended up using C2O coconut water. Why? It was just what I could find at the grocery store and personal preference. I don’t really like Zico or any of the more popular American brands, so I grabbed the C2O. If you can, I’d recommend getting an Asian brand of coconut water if you can get it. I’m not sure what the difference is but the taste of Zico versus an Asian brand is super different. Perhaps where it comes from? C2O’s can says the product is from Thailand, so maybe that’s it. I find the coconut water from the Asian brands (usually in those tall cans) to be sweeter (and not necessarily because it has more sugar or anything) and tastier than a lot of American brands. If you really can’t find coconut water for some reason, my mom said using a lemon-lime soda like Sprite will work too, but it just won’t have as rich a flavor as coconut water.

For the pickled veggies! If you can’t find daikon, carrots by themselves is perfectly fine as well! I sometimes get lazy when I make the pickled veggies and just use carrots. The daikon adds a little more of a watery taste than carrots (which I like), but omitting them isn’t too big of a deal. Regardless of what you use, the veggies will need to sit in vinegar for a bit, so make sure to make these first. Ideally, you want them to be pickling overnight because that allows them to take up the flavor and get some of the pickled veggie crunch.

Mayo is definitely not needed in this recipe, but I figured the mayo would help mimic the flavors of a typical banh mi. Also, I really like mayo haha. If you’re not a big fan, feel free to omit and the bao will still taste delicious.

All righty, are you ready?! Let’s do this!

Banh Mi Bao

  • Servings: 5-6 baos
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

Pork belly:

  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 cups of coconut water (Coco Rico is best)
  • 1 tbsp granulated sugar (or a thumb-sized cube of rock sugar)
  • 2 cloves garlic, whole
  • 1/2 lb pork belly, cut into 1-2” chunks

Bao buns:

  • 1 pack of frozen steamed buns

Pickled veggies:

  • 1 small carrot, julienned
  • 2”-long piece of daikon radish, julienned
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar

Toppings:

  • 1 green onion, julienned
  • cucumber, sliced lengthwise
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced
  • a few sprigs of cilantro
  • mayo (optional)

Directions

  1. Let’s first start with the pickled veggies! Cut the carrot and the daikon radish into matchsticks (julienne), about 1.5-2” long. Place carrots and radish into a container and mix them in with white vinegar. Set in the refrigerator to pickle, ideally for at least 8 hours.
  2. Put all the ingredients for the pork belly into a crockpot/slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours or overnight.
  3. (Next day) Get your toppings prepared! Julienne the green onion (the thinner the better) so you have thin 2” long strips. Slice the jalapeños so you have thin disks of pepper and wash your sprigs of cilantro. Set aside.
  4. Steam your frozen buns! If you have a rice cooker, use a steamer basket to steam 2-4 buns (depending on the size you got) for about 6 to 8 minutes (or according to whatever your package says), until you have springy, soft buns. If you don’t have a steamer, you can use the microwave! Place buns on a microwave-safe plate and place a wet paper towel (not dripping wet but pretty wet) over the buns and microwave for 1.5 to 2 minutes until soft. Set aside until bun assembly.
  5. Take the pieces of pork belly out of the slow cooker and place onto a baking sheet. Broil the pork belly for 2-3 minutes until the the fat caramelizes and chars slightly. I used my toaster oven for this step!
  6. Assemble your buns! If you’re a mayo fan, add a little squirt of mayo into the steamed buns, about 1/2 tsp. Then I like layering the veggies in first: sliced cucumber, pickled veggies, and cilantro. Then I add the pork belly, stuff in the julienned green onions, and top with the sliced jalapeños.
  7. Voila! Time to eat!
If you end up trying this recipe, let me know below how it turns out! If you have other bao fillings that you’ve tried and loved, feel free to share. And if you have cool ideas that you might want me to check out or a flavor profile you’d love to see, comment below too 🙂