Monday, May 22, 2017

The greatest Taiwanese sandwich of all time: guabao

Taiwan is home to many great things to eat, and its street foods are some of the best around. In fact, any of my visits to Taipei seem to always center around breakfast at a soymilk joint, snacks at a street stall as I get hungry throughout the day, and evenings spent at the night market, where mainly Taiwanese delights – but also numerous Mainland favorites – can be had on the cheap.

One of my eternal loves is the perfect sammie known as the guabao. They have everything: pickled meets fresh, salty sidles nesweet, meaty matches up with vegetal, starch balances the protein, and against this all you have a combination of steamed, braised, stir-fried, raw, and toasted all in a small package. 

And even though they rarely disappoint no matter where they’re produced, I have to say, if I have a choice between eating them in a restaurant, a street stand, or at a Taiwanese grandma’s home, I always always always pick the grandma. And second choice is my house.

Mustard pickle and chiles
This is, in fact, perfect homestyle food, the kind of thing Chinese cooks seem to master as they age. 

Perhaps it’s because we have more time to slowly braise the pork, maybe it’s because the grandkids are coming over and we want to spoil them with a delicious snack, or perhaps it’s just that home cooking is almost always the best.

As Taiwanese as this dish is, though, it originally came from Fujian’s capital city of Fuzhou. You can taste the almost Dongpo Pork-style flavors of the rich, red-cooked pork shining through. 

And then there are the soft wrappers, a variation on mantou that are almost the spitting image of the Lotus Buns we made last week. Both of these point to more northern areas than the foods of the usual ancestor for most of Taiwan’s foods: Southern Fujian, and in particular the luscious city of Quanzhou.

A guabao wrapper
But ancestry aside, these are fun to make and even more fun to eat. I highly recommend preparing a batch of these for a party (multiply the recipes a couple of times if you’re expecting a crowd) because everything can be made ahead of time, and then all you have to do is simply heat up the meat and buns right before serving. 

The only relatively difficult thing required here is the making of the buns, but honestly, if you toss the dough together in a food processor as recommended, you’ll be done faster than you could possibly imagine.

Now, a word on nomenclature. The correct Taiwanese name for this sandwich is kua-pao 刈包, which in Mandarin is pronounced yìbāo, but which everybody now pronounces as guàbao as an approximation of that Taiwanese name. That’s why you’ll sometimes see this written in Chinese as guàbāo 掛包or gēbāo 割包

The funny thing is that it’s also called “tiger biting a pig” in Taiwanese (hoo-ka-ti 虎咬豬), I guess because it looks like a big tiger’s mouth with a nice slice of pork inside.

A classic
Be that as it may, in Taiwan this sandwich is traditionally served on the sixteenth day of the twelfth lunar month. That day is called Wĕiyá 尾牙, and is the year’s final day for making offerings to the Earth God. Some say that these sandwiches are shaped like tigers’ mouths so that they devour all the bad luck of the year. And then we devour the tigers. Circle of life. Hakuna matata.

Makes 20 sandwiches (count on at least 2 per person)
Guàbāo 刈包
Fujian and Taiwan

Around 2 pounds (900 g) good pork belly, preferably with the skin
Water, as needed
2 inches (5 cm) fresh ginger, thinly sliced
6 whole green onions
1½ cups (350 ml) Taiwan Mijiu, or other mild Chinese cooking rice wine
12 star anise
4 tablespoons rock sugar, or sugar to taste
¼ cup (60 ml) regular soy sauce

Mustard pickle:
1 pound (or so) pickled mustard (suāncài 酸菜, preferably from Taiwan)
¼ cup (60 ml) peanut or vegetable oil
2 dried Thai chiles, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste

1 cup finely chopped toasted peanuts, either oven toasted (see All Under Heaven) or deep-fried
2 tablespoons sugar
Roll out the wrapper

½ bunch of cilantro, cleaned, dried, and chopped
1 recipe lotus leaf buns (see Tips), steamed and hot

1. Start this recipe at least a day and up to a week ahead of time. Remove any hairs in the pig skin, freeze it for around half an hour to firm it up, and then slice it into around 20 pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) wide by ⅜ inch (10 mm) thick (see Tips). Place the pork in a saucepan, cover with water, bring the water to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. After about 10 minutes, discard the water and rinse off any scum on the pork and pan. Return the pork to the pan and add 2 cups (475 ml) water and the rest of the ingredients for the meat, except for the soy sauce. Bring the pan to a full boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the pork for about 2 hours, or until it is tender but not falling apart, adding more water as necessary. When the pork is done, remove the star anise, ginger, and green onions, add the soy sauce, and then quickly boil down the liquid until it is thick and syrupy. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Remove the pan from the heat, cool it to room temperature, and chill overnight or longer. About a half hour before serving, skim off the solid fat and then simmer the pork slowly in the reduced sauce until it is heated through, taking care not to burn the pork. 
Brush with oil and fold over
2. Up to a couple of days before serving, rinse off the mustard pickle, squeeze it dry, and then cut it crosswise into thin strips. Heat the oil in a wok or pan and add the chile peppers. When they start to sizzle, add the mustard pickle. Stir-fry them just to heat them through and remove the rawness. Season with the sugar and then scrape into a serving bowl. In a separate serving bowl, mix together the peanuts and sugar. Pile the cilantro in a third bowl. Arrange these three bowls on the dining table along with your baskets of hot buns and the steaming pork in its sauce.

3. Have each diner fill his or her own sandwiches. You can fill one first to show how it’s done. My preferred way of doing this (because it seems to make them more stable) is to open up a bun and place the mustard pickle on the bottom, followed by a slice of pork, then a sprinkle of peanuts and sugar (which will glue to the sauce on the pork), and then add a mound of cilantro. Close the bun around this and then devour.
Absolutely perfect pork belly


For this dish, don’t decorate the buns, but rather simply roll the dough out into a long oval and then fold it in half.

Don’t slice the pork too thinly, as it is important to prevent it from falling apart. You want each slice to be about the same width as the buns. 

Good quality pork belly is paramount here, so find an excellent butcher.

Try saving the rendered fat from the pork and using it for a stir-fry. Or, use it to fry up a couple of sunny-side-up eggs. Or do as my mother-in-law loved: melt some, drizzle it over a bowl of hot steamed rice, and season with some soy sauce. 


  1. You have just reminded me that pork belly exists. The last time I used it was to make siu yuk, Chinese roast pork, and that was an adventure in itself but it came out amazingly GOOD. I'll have to hunt down some good ones and make this. Or make it with meicai and eat it with the buns!

    1. Either way would be delicious. I love any excuse to cook with pork belly...

  2. So excited! Thank you so much for posting this!

  3. it's all about the sandy peanut/sugar for me. yum yum!

    1. I totally agree - that bit of candy in the sandwich makes all the difference in the world!