Kalua Pork Buns

For a dish that’s so flavorful and simple to make, Kalua Pork should really be on your dinner table tonight.  Kalua pork is a Hawaiian island favorite, traditionally made from roasting a whole pig in an underground oven called an imu, which is filled with burning wood and covered with banana and ti leaves.  When made at home, the Kalua Pork is a no fuss recipe that can easily be made healthier, especially with a secret swap out ingredient.
One of the key ingredients for home cooks making Kalua Pork is liquid smoke.  If you’ve ever used it before you know that it’s some pretty potent stuff.  Liquid smoke is made when smoke from burning hickory is condensed into liquid form.  It’s added to Kalua pork to imitate the taste of burning koa wood, the type of wood traditionally used to cook this Hawaiian specialty.  The problem with using liquid smoke is that it’s extremely assertive in its smokey taste and can easily overwhelm a dish if you don’t using it sparingly.  This is where smokey, savory Lapsang Souchong tea comes into the picture.

The leaves of Lapsang Souchong, a black tea, are dried over pinewood fires which is how the tea gets its characteristic smokiness.  Where liquid smoke is bold, and one-note in flavor, the smokey taste of Lapsang Souchong is gentler and more well-rounded.  The tea’s sweeter notes are reminiscent of the layers of banana and ti leaves that are laid over and around the pork while it is roasting away in the imu pit.  Unlike the oddly concocted process used to get liquid smoke flavoring, Lapsang Souchong gets its smokey flavor when tea leaves naturally absorb their ambient smokey environment.  Its taste is one-of-a-kind and something any tea lover shouldn’t miss.

Although it’s common to use the pork shoulder cut to make Kalua Pork, I’ve made also made this recipe with the leaner pork loin cut with great results.  If you are using pork shoulder, make sure to trim off any and all the visible fat on the outer edge of the meat.  With pork loin you can leave some more of the fat on since it’s such a skinny cut of meat.  If you are interested to see the difference between the two, the first picture of this post shows Kalua Pork from a pork loin cut, and the second photo shows the darker meat from the pork shoulder cut (yes, I made it twice…it’s that easy and that good!).

Pickled Red Onions make the perfect finish for this meaty, luscious braised pork.  The onions add a crunchy, bright bite to the small sandwiches and a beautiful punch of hot-pink color as well.  Stuffed into make-ahead steamed Chinese Fold-Over Buns, Kalua Pork makes a tasty tea snack, easy portable lunch, or unexpected gourmet dinner.

Hawaiian Kalua Pork Buns with Pickled Red Onions


{Kalua Pork}

3 lb pork shoulder trimmed of all fat on edges or pork loin

2 tsp Hawaiian salt

2 cups brewed Lapsang Souchong tea (2 Tbsp of loose tea brewed for 5 minutes in 212 degrees F water)

{Pickled Red Onions}

1 medium red onion

1 tsp salt

2 Tbsp white sugar

3/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 tsp black pepper

{Chinese Fold-Over Buns}


scallions, thinly sliced

cilantro, roughly chopped


crock pot

medium bowl

2 forks


1.)  Place trimmed pork shoulder, salt, and tea in the crockpot.  Flip the pork over a few times to distribute the salt evenly, then cover the crockpot with the lid and set on high.  Cook the pork for 3-3 1/2 hours, flipping the meat every hour or so.

2.)  Make the Pickled Red Onions.  Very thinly slice a red onion.  Scatter the salt on the sliced onions and let them sit for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, rinse and drain the onions thoroughly under cold water.  Add the vinegar, sugar, and pepper to the onions and mix until the sugar dissolves.  Place the bowl of pickled onions in the fridge to chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

3.)  When the meat is done, it will pull apart easily into shreds using two forks.  Remove any remaining bits of fat, and shred the entire piece of meat.

4.)  Stuff the shredded Kalua Pork into freshly steamed Chinese Fold-Over Buns, then top with Pickled Red Onions, scallions, and cilantro.  Enjoy!

Dim Sum Recipe #2: Honeyed Pork Buns (Baked Char Siu Bao)

Char siu bao are to the Chinese tea lunch what egg and watercress sandwiches are to an English afternoon tea.  These barbecued pork buns are the quintessential Cantonese tea snack, and no excursion to yum cha is complete without them.  The most traditional char siu bao are steamed, but for my second blog post on dim sum I’m going to share with you the slightly westernized, baked version of this delicious treat.

Rising to the occasion…

Making these buns is a two-step process.  First, you make the filling and then you make the bun dough.  To make things simpler, you might want to prepare the meat filling a day before you plan on baking the buns.  The second part of the recipe is making the bun dough, where a water roux (also called a tangzhong) is used to add extra moisture and softness to the lightly sweetened dough.  Soft and supple is considered to be the ideal texture for Asian breads, very different from the ideal for French breads like baguettes, and the tangzhong is how we achieve this.  This dough recipe works equally well in both a stand mixer with a dough hook or a bread machine.  If you are using a stand mixer, be careful not to over mix, which would result in a lumpy, non-elastic dough that won’t allow you to get those smooth, shiny bun tops!

Honey-shellacked for extra softness.

With the use of some brown cupcake liners (that remind me of Sprinkles Cupcakes) and a tart/cupcake pan, I was able to make a rounder, taller bun, almost brioche-like in appearance.  You can certainly use a standard cookie sheet or pan, but you will get slightly shorter bun that is a bit more spread out.  For special parties, try using different patterned or colored cupcake liners for a modern and fresh look for your char siu baos.  The buns I’ve made here are topped off with some black sesame seeds and chopped chives, which are also mixed into the filling for a fresh pop of green color and fanciness.

Honey BBQ Char Siu Pork Buns

Makes 16- 3″ buns.


{Bun Dough}

3 cups bread flour

3 Tbsp Bird’s Custard Powder

1 Tbsp nonfat dry milk

1 Tbsp instant yeast (I use SAF instant)

1/4 cup white sugar

2 Tbsp butter at room temp

3 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/4 cup water

bench flour and oil for proofing bowl

{Water Roux}

1/2 cup water

2 Tbsp bread flour


2 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil

1 small yellow or brown onion, finely chopped

2 Tbsp rice wine or sherry

3/4 pound roasted Chinese barbecued pork, diced into 1/4″ cubes

6 Tbsp water

4 tsp oyster sauce

4 tsp low sodium soy sauce

1 Tbsp hoisin sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

2 Tbsp sugar

5 tsp cornstarch

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

1- 3/4 oz. package of fresh chives, chopped


1 egg, mixed with 1 tsp water

1 Tbsp honey, mixed with 1 tsp hot water

2 Tbsp black sesame seeds

2 Tbsp chopped chives (reserved)


Stand mixer with dough hook attachment or bread machine

rolling pin or scale

2- 12 hole muffin or tart pans, or 1 muffin/tart pan and 1 regular baking sheet

cupcake cases/liners

pastry brush


1.)  Make the Pork Filling.  Put a large skillet on medium-high heat.  Add the oil to the pan and then add chopped white onions.  Cook onions until softened and lightly carmelized, about 5-7 minutes.  Pour in the sherry or rice wine and let it cook out.  Lower the heat to medium and add in the diced pork.  Cook this mixture for an extra 2 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix all the rest of the ingredients (except chives) in a small bowl to create a slurry.  Add the slurry to the pork and onion mixture, wait for it to come to a boil, and cook the filling until it becomes dark brown and translucent.  Turn off the heat and transfer the filling to a medium bowl.  Cover the filling and set it aside to cool to room temperature.  When filling has completely cooled, mix in all but 2 Tbsp of the chopped chives.  The remaining 2 Tbsp of chives are used later to garnish the buns.

2.)  Make the Water Roux.  Place a 1/2 cup of cold water into a small saucepan and add the 2 Tbsp of bread flour.  Mix well until the mixture resembles homogenized milk, then turn on stove top to medium heat.  Cook the roux until it thickens up and has the consistency of a thick yogurt, making sure to keep the mixture a pure white color by not overcooking.  The mixture should not exceed 150 degrees F.  Place the mixture into a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap, making contact with the top surface of the roux (to prevent a skin from forming).  You should end up with about 1/3 cup of roux, ready to use when it has cooled back down to room temperature.

3.)  Make the Dough.  Using the bowl of a stand mixer, place all the wet dough ingredients (including the roux) into the mixing bowl.  Place the bowl in the stand mixer with a dough hook attachment and start to mix on low speed.  Add the yeast, sugar, milk powder, and custard powder first.  Then add the bread flour gradually, a cup at a time, scraping down the insides of the mixing bowl periodically.  Increase the speed to low-medium and continue to mix until the shaggy mass becomes a soft and supple ball of dough.  If necessary, gradually add a teaspoon of water at a time until the dough comes together.  Knead the dough for 10 minutes.  Transfer the ball of dough to an oiled bowl to proof, lightly coating all sides of the dough with some of the same oil.  Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap.  Let the dough proof in a warm, draft free place for 30-40 minutes or until the mass has doubled in volume.

4.)  Portion Out the Dough.  After the dough has doubled in volume, punch it down and transfer it to a work surface lightly dusted with bench flour.  Give the dough a few light kneadings, then portion dough out into 16 equal pieces (see below).

5.)  Make the Buns.  Roll out each of the 16 dough pieces into a roughly 4″ round or square, making sure to keep the thickness of the dough even throughout in each piece.  Fill each flattened piece with 1 1/2 Tbsp of meat filling.  Gather the edges to pinch and seal, then flip the bun over so that the smooth side faces up.  Place buns into cupcake cases and transfer to a 12 hole muffin or tart pan, then cover loosely with plastic wrap.  Let the buns rise for 30-40 minutes, or long enough for them to have doubled in puffiness.  Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

6.)  Finish and Bake.  After the second rising, brush the tops of the buns with egg wash, then sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Bake in oven for about 15 minutes, or until buns turn a light golden brown.  Remove from oven, transfer to a cooling rack to sit for a few minutes, then give the buns a generous brushing of thinned honey.  Sprinkle with fresh chives and serve!

*** Tip:  Store leftover buns in fridge for up to 5 days.  When you are ready to eat them, reheat the buns in microwave for 15-20 seconds or until warm and soft again.


Key ingredients for soft, sweet buns: water roux (a.k.a. tangzhong) and Bird’s Custard Powder

Chop, chop, chop.  Chives, char siu pork, and onion.

For my char siu, I took the healthier and easier way out by using a store-bought brand of char siu sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand) to marinade a very lean pork tenderloin and then baked it off.  The char siu you find in a Chinese restaurant will most certainly be a fattier cut of pork.

First proofing: wait for dough to double in bulk.  It was cold on this day so I put another bowl of warm water underneath the bowl with the dough…worked like a charm!

After the 1st proof, section the dough into 16 equal pieces.

I sectioned out my dough by rolling it out into a 16″ x 6″ rectangle and then cut it into 16 equal pieces with a knife. Another option is to roll the dough into a long log and cut.  You can also use a kitchen scale to weigh, which would be the most exact way to get equal peices.

Mix in chopped chives after the filling has cooled

Start at bottom of this picture and work up.  Flip “pinched” & sealed” bottoms over to reveal a smooth bun top and place finished bun in a cupcake liner.

Egg wash and sesame seeds after 2nd proofing.

Warm out of the oven, with some Chinese jasmine tea for sipping.

Warm out of the oven, with some Chinese jasmine tea for sipping.

Dim Sum Recipe #1:  Siu Mai Dumplings

Dim Sum Recipe #3:  Ha Gao Dumplings

Dim Sum Recipe #4:  Egg Custard Tarts (Dan Tat)

Dim Sum Recipe #5:  Pork & Chive Potstickers