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!

Chinese Fold-Over Buns

Chinese Fold-Over Buns are the naked version of those steamed pork buns that dim sum lovers can’t get enough of.  Having a unique pocket-like shape, Chinese Fold-Over Buns eliminate the need for pre-stuffing buns, which is one of the more complicated steps in bun making.  After a quick steam, these tender pillows are ready to serve with a cooked filling of your choice.

If you want the texture and look of your buns to be similar to the kind you get at a Chinese restaurant, search for some bun flour, also called Hong Kong or bao flour, at your local Asian market.  Hong Kong flour is a flour that’s lower in gluten than all-purpose (AP) flour.  It steams up fluffier, whiter, and brighter than buns just made with plain AP flour.  Look for the flour package that has white, steamed buns on it and you should be good to go.

If you prefer to use all-purpose flour that you can find at a regular American grocery store that’s fine too.  I would suggest making a blend of all-purpose and cake flours, where for every 1 cup of flour in this recipe, you use 3/4 cups of AP and 1/4 cups of cake flour.  This flour blend will give you a bun texture closer to that of Chinese restaurant buns, but they still won’t be as white and fluffy as the buns made with Hong Kong flour.

These Fold-Over Buns actually take to freezing very well.  If you don’t plan on eating them right away, set them aside to cool to room temperature after they’ve been steamed off and then place them in ziplock bags to place in the freezer.  When you are ready to use them later, just remove them from the zip locks and steam until them until they get soft and warm throughout.  You could also warm them in the microwave, but they will get a bit tougher and chewier this way.

And while we are talking about having extra buns stashed in the freezer, here are some more ways that you could enjoy these tender, soft bun pockets:

* Chinese Roasted Duck, Scallions, & Hoisin Sauce (the classic)

* Kalua Pork & Pickled Red Onions

* Store-bought Roasted Chicken & Olive Tapenade

* Korean BBQ & Kim Chee

* Teriyaki Chicken & Pickled Ginger

* Smoked Salmon & Capers

* Cucumber & Herbed Cream Cheese

* Pastrami & Sauerkraut

* Applewood Smoked Bacon & Tomato

* Roasted Turkey & Roquefort Bleu Cheese

* Fried Chicken & Sweet Pickles

* Hummus & Sun Dried Tomatoes

* Black Forest Ham & Gruyère

* Nutella & Strawberries

* Peanut Butter & Grape Jelly

Ok, you get my point. The buns are extremely versatile.  They are the original version of crustless tea sandwich bread!

In my upcoming posts, I’ll be giving you even more ideas on how use this very versatile bun dough.  For today, I’m pairing these beautiful buns with my recipe for Kalua Pork and Pickled Red Onions for a true taste of Hawaii.  My slow cooker recipe for Kalua Pork uses Lapsang Souchong tea to give the luscious meat a gentle, smoky savoriness.  The recipe takes about 5 minutes of real work and then some patience, but the results are totally worth it.

And if you don’t have patience, store-bought roasted chicken can be stuffed into these buns for a tasty and easy meal.  Pair these with a hot, soothing cup of Asian tea and you’ll be enjoying the simplest of gourmet meals.

Chinese Fold-Over Buns

Makes 12 large buns.


3 1/4 cups Hong Kong flour

3/4 cup water + 1-2 Tbsp more if needed

2 tsp SAF instant yeast

2 tsp baking powder

2 Tbsp non-fat dry milk powder

1/4 tsp fine salt

4 Tbsp powdered sugar

2 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil

extra oil for coating proofing bowl


stand mixer with mixing bowl and hook attachment

large whisk

large proofing bowl

plastic wrap

work surface

bamboo steamer

wok with slightly larger diameter than steamer OR a stockpot with exactly the same diameter as the steamer

rolling-pin or scale

parchment, to line steamer


1.)  Using the bowl of a stand mixer, place all the dry dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Use a large whisk to stir all the dry ingredients together, so that they become evenly incorporated.  Place the bowl in the stand mixer with a dough hook attachment and start to mix on low-speed.  Add the water and oil.  Continue to mix on low-speed.  If the dough isn’t coming together after 3 minutes and looks dry, gradually add 1-2 Tbsp of water until the dough comes together.  Continue to knead the dough on low for an extra 10-15 minutes until the shaggy mass becomes a soft and supple ball of dough.

Pull off a piece of the dough and conduct a windowpane test, where you gently try to pull the dough out into a very thin membrane-like sheet that does not tear.  If you aren’t able to do this easily and the dough breaks apart, continue to knead the dough on low-speed for 2-3 more minutes, then try this windowpane test again.  Passing the windowpane test means that the dough has been sufficiently kneaded.

2.)  Transfer the ball of dough to a lightly oiled bowl to proof, 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.

3.)  After the dough has doubled in volume, punch it down and transfer it to a work surface.  Give the dough a few light kneadings, then roll the dough out into a rectangle, and portion it out into 12 equal pieces (see below).  You can also use a scale if you prefer.  Roll out each of the 12 dough pieces into a ball.

4.)  Place any dough balls that you aren’t immediately using under clear wrap to prevent them from drying out.  Roll each ball into an oval shape about a 1/4″ in thickness (just eyeball it).  Try to keep the thickness of the dough even throughout in each piece.  Fold one half of each oval onto itself to create a half-moon looking bun. 

5.)  Place buns in a bamboo steamer lined with parchment, then cover loosely with plastic wrap.  Let the buns rise for about 15-20 minutes in a warm, draft free place, long enough for them to have just doubled in puffiness.  Meanwhile, fill a large wok or stockpot up with water to a depth of 4″.  Set the water on high heat to reach a full boil.

6.)  Place bamboo steamer filled with risen buns on top of wok or stockpot, place steamer lid on, and steam the buns for about 8 minutes, or until they are light, fluffy, and puffy.  Your Chinese Fold-Over Buns are now ready to be stuffed with a filling of your choice, or you can even eat them plain…enjoy!

PB & J.  You thought I was just kidding, didn’t ya?