Steamed pork buns...a dim sum staple
I would say it is a decades long battle as to which is better, the steamed or baked pork bun, but I would be lying. If you ask anyone who has had dim sum before what kind of pork bun they had, it will always be steamed. It is the over riding style you are gonna find out there. Thus I figured I would kick off this throw down with the one everyone knows and most people enjoy.
While their sizes may vary, steamed pork buns have the same general shape at most every dim sum or bakery sport you get them. Round balls of dough with little peaks meeting in the middle. The tops can sometimes be different based on who is making them and how well they can bunch it up. And every now and then you will see them red dots. These dots usually denote them as pork since a few spots carry both pork and chicken buns. (I chose to concentrate on the pork as they are the most popular. Note, in rare cases, you may even come across a vegetarian one because SF)
Usually made of rice flour or low gluten cake flower, the outsides are slightly sticky to the touch and please remember, they all come with a piece of white paper on the bottom you are supposed to peel off before eating. I will say, when I first had one I'm pretty sure I ate the paper without even thinking about it. Don't worry though, it happens and won't harm you. As with all things, it will pass. The insides are like thick billowy layers spongy dough that taste both thick and sticky when eaten. The trick is getting the dough to rise on the inside to show the light sponginess. The soft bread like interior is due to the mix of both yeast and baking powder in the mix causing the rise and creating a texture somewhere between a bread loaf and a donut (probably why I like them). There are also trace amounts of baker's ammonia which helps give them their cloud like whiteness all over. The above had this though not quite as in spades as some I have eaten. It surprisingly had more filling than you might normally find, not something I'm gonna complain about though.
Also, there are kind of two kinds of steamed pork buns you will come across. The first, like the above, has chunks of pork mixed with a sweet reddish orange barbecue sauce. Something more along the lines of this one:
Here you can see the sponge of the bread, the chunks of meat in the center and all the barbecue sauce which is usually of the sweet variety. This one was done almost perfectly as the meat sat right in the exact center and when you cut, it all came out evenly. Plus, the bread on this one didn't press down and stick together like the one above. It was much less sticky and probably ha a chance to steam a little longer. Either way, I actually did like both of these and I am kind of partial to the sweet pork bun. The other one you usually see is more like this one:
I usually like to call these gravy pork buns. The pork is still chunky, but the sauce is more like a slightly sweet brown gravy as opposed to a barbecue sauce. And sometimes, these are not sweet. You can see on this one, the bread is puffy but the meat is a little off center and not quite as prevalent as in the other two. More bread, less meat, that is why my friend Ms. O likes the baked ones. She says they have more meat. We'll see.
Sometimes I am hit or miss on the brown ones. Much for me comes down to how fatty the meat may or may not be and how the sauce actually tastes. This one wasn't really sweet and there was little fat on the meat making it a decent brown version. Maybe a bit too much bread to meat ratio and if there had been more sauce, it could have helped seep through all the dough to help it not feel like it was dry. I know it is odd something steamed can be dry, but it does happen. It is why I suggest always have some liquid handy when you get one, you may need it.
In the end, I really like a good steamed barbecue pork bun. For the princely some of $1 to $1.50 you can get a relatively biggish bun that will most like fill you up. Though two will do the trick better. What you will have to figure out is which flavor profile of pork you like--brown or red, sweet or not and you are probably gonna have to try a bunch of different spots to see which makes your fave as they all do the slightly different. The above I purchased at Wing Lee Bakery in the Richmond District, Eastern Bakery in Chinatown and Dim Sum Bistro in Chinatown. But there are innumerable spots around town to get these and part of the fun is in the hunt and getting to try as many different buns as possible. And don't get stuck on just Chinatown to try some, head out to the Richmond area or Outer Sunset for neighborhood finds.
Thumbs up then for the steamed pork bun!! Stayed tuned to see if the baked version can live up to all this puffy, chunky, meaty, sweetness.