It’s time for another item on the DC Omnivore 100 list of the top one hundred foods every good omnivore should try at least once in their lives.
In the spirit of the recent Chinese Lunar New Year and the Year of the Tiger celebrations, let’s explore the sweet, doughy, BBQ-esque goodness of steamed pork buns. In China, these roll sized delights are regularly consumed street cart food and are also a staple of the traditional Chinese family gathering of dim sum.
The bun’s exterior and its steaming bamboo container might have you thinking that this is just another dumpling. And while you’d be right, this is a dumpling, the steamed pork bun offers a sticky, rich, doughy and savory experience that starkly differs from the clean and fresh taste of shumai and the nutty flavorings of potstickers.
As you see in the above picture, the outside of the bun is much thicker and bread-like then the thin, paper-like casing of other steamed dumplings. The steamed pork buns I recently had at Chinatown Express, in DC’s Chinatown, had a soft Wonderbread, and I reference that in a good way, texture. Ideally, when you bite into the bun, your teeth should take about a millennium to travel through the fluffy, doughy goodness; it’s like sinking your face into the world’s softest pillow.
Finally, after your cloud-like journey through the bun exterior, your mouth reaches the succulent, honey barbecued pork center. The meat filling, if properly done, is the perfect combination of sweet and savory. I particularly like Ping Pong Dim Sum‘s version (char sui bun) because the filling exemplifies this delicate balance, and is very similar to the pulled pork one would find at a traditional southern barbecue.
Additionally, the center filling also has the distinct flavoring of onions, vinegar, sugar and spices found in a vegetable, such as pumpkin, based chutney. If you’re looking for a steamed pork bun that is very much along this line, I suggest checking out the pork bun at Wheaton’s Hollywood East Cafe.
When ordering a steamed pork bun, be sure they’re made to order as the exterior can become dry and hard, if they sit too long post steaming. Also, if you’re not a carnivore you can still enjoy the tastiness of steamed buns with the vegetable or sweet bean paste filled varieties (the bean filled buns usually have a red dot on the outside.) The above three DC locations generally serve a vegetarian friendly bun option, just double check with your server to make sure they’re definitely meatless. FYI: These meatless version, especially the sweet bean, tend to be on the very sweet side, so they might be best served towards the end of the meal as a dessert-like option.