Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David Chang's Pork Buns: An Unexpected Hit


Before we leave tonight, we're going to make another visit to the Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. If we were actually visiting Momofuku and its standing-room-only annex called Milk Bar, we'd find two eateries that are small and loud with not much in the way of decor, and there's always a long line of customers out the door. And when those patrons finally step up to bark out their noodle orders, most also ask for Momofuku's famous pork buns.

David Chang is owner of Momofuku and author of the new cookbook with the same name. Chang says his pork bun works because of its complex mix of flavors and textures.

Mr. DAVID CHANG (Owner, Momofuku Noodle Bar): It's soft. It's unctuous. It has a burst of fat flavor from the salty pork belly, and then it's got this cool, crunchy texture from the pickled cucumbers and the sweetness in the hoisin sauce. So I didn't anticipate it ever being as wildly successful as it is, but they're sort of addictive. They just are salty sweet and sandwiched between a soft, pillowy, steamed bread.

NORRIS: You say you're surprised by their success.

Mr. CHANG: Yeah. People don't believe me when I say they were 11th-hour addition. I had in the book, it describes me on the hunt of the recipe of making steamed buns. People don't think that bread is part of Asian culture or Asian food culture, but it's quite prevalent in Northern China, and you see it throughout Japan and as you go to Taiwan. And I hadn't seen it in this form until I went to a restaurant called Oriental Garden, and that became an obsession.

I would always ask the owner there and I call him Uncle Choi(ph) - I was, like, you have to give me this recipe. And I essentially went there every day bothering him and badgering him until he told me that he doesn't even make these things.

NORRIS: You know, I'm wondering if maybe you should just read your description of the search for the bread because the description in the book is just so delicious, if you have the book.

Mr. CHANG: I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: This is sort of an esoteric reference to a movie, I think, that was produced by Quincy Jones.

Mr. CHANG: (Reading) Have you ever seen the blacksploitation martial arts movie "The Last Dragon" from the '80s, where the dude is in constant search for some type of master who can provide some wisdom, and in the end, it turns out to be a hoax? The master's place is a fortune cookie factory.

That's how I felt when the place I was sent to, learned the secret of steamed bread, turned out to be Mei Mei Foods, a local company that supplied dozens of New York restaurants with pre-made dim sum items, including the buns.

Before it closed in 2007, the guy there, John, showed me the dead simple process: a little mixing, a little steaming and presto, buns. It turns out, they are made from a simple, white-bread dough. Mantou, the Chinese name, is not so different from, say, Wonder Bread that is steamed instead of baked.

So when we started making it ourselves, we started to develop our own recipe and our own essentially white bread. And next time you make a loaf of bread, don't bake it. Pop it in the steamer and

NORRIS: Like a bamboo steamer?

Mr. CHANG: Yeah, a bamboo steamer would work. Line it with a little oil on the bottom so the bread doesn't stick and see what happens.

NORRIS: Your book includes a recipe for the steamed buns. It's a huge recipe. It makes 50 buns. It seems like a lot.

Mr. CHANG: Well, it's not it seems like a lot, but I guarantee you, if you make it for a party of six, theyre going to be all gone.

NORRIS: Oh, so maybe 50 is not enough?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: Well, it is I've seen people eat, like, eight. And if this was for a party, it would be a perfect canape, and especially if you make the bread, you can make them into a smaller size so they're literally one-bite things like a White Castle burger, almost.

NORRIS: Mmm. So you take the bun, you slather on some hoisin sauce.

Mr.�CHANG: Yeah.

NORRIS: You use some of the pickled cucumbers.

Mr.�CHANG: Cucumbers. Yeah, it's essentially a riff on the Peking duck. It's delicious, it's fatty, it's all the things that I think people they don't want the calorie intake, they don't want to know that stuff. But

NORRIS: I was going to ask, is there a healthier alternative here? I mean, if you tried to do steamed buns with whole wheat or something, would that

Mr.�CHANG: No, no, no, you can make vegetable buns. We make shitake buns. The fillings are endless. But for me the biggest surprise why it became so popular was I didn't anticipate New Yorkers embracing pork belly as much as they did, because just a decade ago or even in the late 1990s, restaurants couldn't sell a dish called pork belly. So people would change it to be called fresh bacon, and I refuse to call it fresh bacon buns. I was, like, we're going to call it what is, pork belly, and to my surprise, people embraced it.

NORRIS: David Chang. He's the chef and co-author of the cookbook "Momofuku." It's named after his New York noodle restaurant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.