Saturday, July 23, 2011

How NOT to Make Chinese Pork Buns

This post is for those among my friends, like Mindy & Amanda, who have such faith in my cooking skills that they routinely declare, "anything you make is delicious!" I do in fact have kitchen failures, and sometimes they are pretty spectacularly bad.

I love me some Chinese barbecue pork buns, and I buy a package of frozen ones every time I get to visit the mega-Asian-mart grocery store near my friend V's house. But there's no local source, so recently I Googled up a few recipes. The recipes I'd found called for marinating the pork, then oven-roasting it, the shredding it and using it as the base for the bun filling. "Bah!" I thought. "I make pulled-pork barbecue in the slow cooker all the time. I'll just do that." So I started gathering the ingredients for the marinade and putting them in the slow-cooker crock. And right about this time my kitchen was invaded by several friends who had come over to play in the swimming pool and brought dinner with them. Suddenly the kitchen was crowded and full of commotion and all the utensils and measuring spoons were in short supply. Whatever- barbecue is forgiving. I would just eyeball amounts and get this thing thrown together.

I glanced at the screen of my laptop, balanced over on the other side of the kitchen out of the splatter zone, and noticed that all the ingredients seemed to be in 1- and 2-Tablespoon increments. Hoisin sauce went in. Oyster sauce? Didn't have any, so I added extra hoisin. No rice wine, either, so I used a splash of white wine. Then I opened the honey, and found it had solidified in the jar. No room or time to mess with melting it- I tossed in some brown sugar instead. Some ginger, some garlic... now that 5-spice powder I just bought, where did it go? I tossed in a generous capful, stirred it up, and plopped in the sliced-up pork. I clapped the lid on the slow-cooker, turned it to "low" and headed out to join my guests in the pool.

By bedtime, it was smelling rather licorice-y and not much at all like the Chinese barbecue pork buns I've known and loved. I shrugged off my misgivings and went to bed. The next morning, my first waking thought was, "What is that awful smell??!!" Alas, it was coming from the kitchen. Alas, it was my pork. Alas, it was dreadful.

It turns out that all the ingredients went in 1-2 Tablespoon increments EXCEPT the 5-spice powder. I was only supposed to use 1/4 tsp of that. So I'd put in 12 times too much. And apparently there is a reason all the recipes said to oven-roast the pork, not slow-cook it. The anise (licorice-y) flavor of the 5-spice powder was intensified by the long moist cooking while other balancing flavors died away. Plus I had made ill-advised substitutions for several key ingredients. The result was irredeemable. I had to throw the whole potful of pork away and simmer some cinnamon on the stove for an hour to cover the stink. This may be my most inedible concoction ever, right up there with the bitter eggplant parmesan of 2008.

I will try again. I am determined to provide myself an uniterrupted supply of pork buns. But next time I'll use the actual ingredients and measurements in the recipe. Here's hoping.

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