Gua bao, which translates as “cut bun,” is one of the few Taiwanese specialties that haves made it into the American culinary consciousness. It’s hard not to love. The delicacy reportedly has its roots in Fujian, but really, it’s a dish most commonly associated with Taiwan. Gua bao is essentially a hamburger — a steamed white bun that encloses a fatty pork belly garnished with the traditional accoutrements of pickled mustard greens, peanuts dusted with sugar and cilantro. It’s a festival dish, loved predominantly by the Northern Taiwanese and eaten heavily during the Weiya Festival at the end of the year.
“It is also known as ‘tiger bites pig,’” says Ivy Chen (http://kitchenivy.com/), a cooking teacher and cookbook author based in Taipei. “The bun looks like a tiger’s mouth.”
I attended one of Chen’s marvelous cooking classes in Taiwan, where she gave me her personal recipe for gua bao. Chen’s in-house bread maker helped cut down on the kneading time, and it was surprisingly simple to cobble together the rest of the dish. Not that Chen needs the shortcut of a bread maker; she has been teaching cooking classes for 17 years and is very capable of making the dough by hand. She operates out of her cozy home kitchen in the Shilin District in Taipei and speaks fluent English and Mandarin.
Taipei is my first stop on my research trip. The choice is, of course, deliberate. After all, this is the country where my family is from. I consider it my second home. I’m spending my days here meeting up with old faces and learning about the food and culture by simply wandering. It’s a bit overwhelming; the options are truly endless.
Taiwan is an island of immigrants and the diversity shines through the food. The cuisine is a wonderful conglomerate of Fujianese classics, sprinkled with regional delicacies from all throughout China. Fujian, a Southeastern province in Mainland China, is where the bulk of Taiwanese people are from. There are a lot of overlapping dishes, but the differences are apparent. For example, oyster omelets in Taiwan have more potato starch than the ones in Fujian. There’s also a subtle Japanese undertone to Taiwanese cuisine. After all, the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. And sashimi and hot pots – shabu-shabu-style – are wildly popular in this country.
Given the geography, seafood figures prominently. Dishes, especially if they are of Sichuan or Hunan origin, are mostly less spicy than their mainland counterparts. The Taiwanese, by and large, don’t do well with heavy spice.
Taiwan is also home to some of the world’s best night markets. These alleyways chock full of street food are an everyday affair. To visit Taiwan without at least a stop at one of the evening bazaars is truly a wasted trip. It is in the night markets where the island’s true flavors shine. And of course gua bao can be found nightly at any given market.
Buns are usually standard; it’s the fillings that matter. Chen, of course, knows this. Her fillings are fantastic. The pork belly is sufficiently tender; the key is to choose a really fat slice at the market. She gently fries her pickled mustard greens to add layers of flavor and the crushed peanuts are sprinkled with sugar for a bit of sweetness. And for the novice cook: rest assured, the bun isn’t that complicated to make. It just takes a bit of patience. Chen says that the same dough can be used to make mantou or fluffy steamed buns. Also of note: the pork belly can be repurposed into stewed pork belly over rice.
Here’s the recipe:
For the buns:
For the braised pork belly:
For the pickled mustard: