"It's weird to be 'famous' for something. Can you imagine being Neil Diamond and having to sing Cracklin' Rosie every time you get onstage for the rest of your life? Neither can I. But if Momofuku is 'famous' for something, it's these steamed pork buns. Are they good? They are. Are they something that sprang from our collective imagination like Athena out of Zeus's forehead? Hell no. They're just our take on a pretty common Asian food formula: steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating. And they were an eleventh-hour addition to the menu. Almost a mistake. No one thought they were a good idea or that anyone would want to eat pork belly sandwiches.
I got into the whole steamed bread thing when I stayed in Beijing. I ate char siu bao - steamed buns stuffed with dark, sweet roast pork - morning, noon and night from vendors on the street who did nothing but satisfy that city's voracious appetite for steamed buns. When I lived in Tokyo, I'd pick up a niku-man - the Japanese version, with a milder-flavoured filling - every time I passed the local convenience store. They're like the 7-Eleven hot dogs of Tokyo, with an appeal not unlike that of the soft meatiness of White Castle hamburgers.
And in the early days of my relationship with Oriental Garden - the restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown where I've eaten more meals than anywhere else on the planet - I'd always order the Peking duck, which the restaurant serves with folded-over steamed buns with fluted edges, an inauthentic improvement on the more common accompaniment of spring onion pancakes.
After I'd eaten his Peking duck about a million times, I asked Mr Choi, the owner (whom I now call Uncle Choi, because he's the Chinese uncle I never had), to show me how to make the steamed buns. For as many times as I had eaten steamed buns, I had never thought about making them, but with Noodle Bar about to open, I had the menu on my mind. He laughed and put me off for weeks before finally relenting. (He likes to remind me that I am the kung-fu - the student, the seeker, the workman - and he is the si-fu - the master.) But instead of taking me back into the kitchen, he handed me a scrap of paper with an address, the name John on it, and a note scribbled in Chinese that I couldn't read.
Have you ever seen the blaxploitation martial arts movie The Last Dragon from the '80s, where the dude is in constant search for some type of master who can provide some wisdom, and in the end it turns out to be a hoax - the master's place is a fortune cookie factory? Probably not. But that's how I felt when the place I was sent to learn the secret of steamed bread turned out to be May May Foods, a local company that supplied dozens of New York restaurants with premade dim sum items, including buns, for decades before it closed in 2007. The guy there, John, showed me the dead-simple process: a little mixing, a little steaming, and presto! buns. It turns out they are made from a simple white bread dough, mantou (not so different from, say, Wonder Bread), that is steamed instead of baked.
But when I saw the flour everywhere and tried to imagine that mess in our tiny, already overcrowded kitchen, I immediately placed an order. We didn't have the space to attempt them then, and we continued to buy them from Chinatown bakeries even after May May closed.
If you have that option - a Chinese bakery or restaurant where you can easily buy them, or even a well-stocked freezer section at a local Chinese grocery store - I encourage you to exercise it without any pangs of guilt. How many sandwich shops bake their own bread? Right. Don't kill yourself. But don't be put off by the idea of making them either. They're easy and they freeze perfectly. Here's the recipe for our pork buns, which you can increase ad infinitum to make more to share."