Compared to the cult-like veneration of beef noodles, hot pot, and stinky tofu in Taiwan, the guabao is an underappreciated snack. What English-speakers often call “the Taiwanese hamburger” is available in every town and city, but certainly not on every street, nor even in many night markets.
Because of their shape, these hearty delights often appear in weiya banquets, traditional end-of-the-year feasts at which Taiwanese bosses treat their employees. According to some, a generously proportioned guabao bears an auspicious resemblance to a purse overflowing with money. The way in which the bun envelops the pork has also inspired a nickname which some vendors have embraced: hu yao zhu (pronounced ho ka ti in Holo, “tiger bites pig”).
Some foodies steer clear of guabao because they think neither of the main ingredients – pork belly and steamed bread – is especially healthful. The meat, while exceptionally tender and juicy, is heavily marbled with fat. To people who believe whole-wheat bread is better for you than loaves made of bleached flour, the shiny whiteness of the wrap suggests it offers nothing but carbohydrates. Those who abstain may be right, yet over the past six or seven years the popularity of guabao in the Western world has leapfrogged that of other Taiwanese dishes.
And truly Taiwanese it seems to be, too. There is a theory, though not a widely held one, that a meat-filled, steamed cut bun called roujia mo (literally “meat pressed into a small loaf”) popular in the mainland Chinese province of Shaanxi made its way to Fujian and eventually to Taiwan. Fujianese cuisine does have something called khong bah pau (Holo pronunciation; kong rou bao in Mandarin), but nothing is added to the meat and bun but celtuce (also known as Chinese lettuce).
Taiwanese guabao, by contrast, almost always incorporate fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and a dusting of crushed peanut. “These three components extend the dimensions and depth of the dish tremendously, making it so much more interesting,” gush Singaporean bloggers TravellingFoodies. “The regular [khong bah pau] taste rather plain and run-of-the-mill in comparison.”
Just as it is hard to image an American-style hamburger without lettuce, tomato, onion, and perhaps a pickle, many Taiwanese assert that if a guabao is to be considered authentic, peanut powder is an essential element.
Guabao is similar to the Mexican dish carnitas soft taco in that the protein in both is slow-cooked pork. However, whereas carnitas is pulled apart by hand or shredded, most guabao feature a single slab of deliciously soft meat about the size of a deck of playing cards. Taiwanese usually call this kong rou (khong bah in Holo). Beyond Taiwan and Fujian, common names for pork cooked this way include hongshao rou (“braised pork”) or dongpo rou (featured in many cookery books as “Dongpo pork”). A few vendors advertise their guabao with the Holo term for uncooked pork belly (sa chan bah; in Mandarin this cut is known as wuhua rou). Not just any chunk of pork belly will do. The meat should not be too lean, to ensure it does not become dry and fibrous after braising. The meat is cooked in a thick gravy that typically includes soy sauce, rice wine, and often sugar...
This is an extract from the first of what I expect to be several articles co-written with Katy Hui-wen Hung (who also provided the photo above), with whom I'm working on a major food related project. The entire article can be read online here.
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