The Book of Bao: Porked Belly

pork belly marinated in shio koji brine

I happened to be at an Asian grocery the other day and noticed that pork belly was on sale. Since I still had some shio koji left, I thought marinating it in pork belly might be a good 2nd project for the salty substance.

I had been meaning to try emulating the ubiquitous Momofuku pork belly buns. Yes, they are everywhere, but heck, it’s because they are so sublimely perfect–an Asian slider of pork belly goodness with a crunch of veg enveloped in a pillowy white, clamshell-shaped bun.

We copied them at moto-i, and they were extremely popular. The two-bite brownie of the slider/mini-burger world, the buns (or baos) have their roots in Taiwanese food. Baohaus in NYC offers the ‘gua bao’ in a more traditional way (along with some cool fusion twists), as you would see at a night market in Taipei. The Momofuku version is definitely a fusion, an homage to what is considered old skool. I can certainly appreciate both sides of the bao coin.

Since I do like the Momofuku hoisin sauce version (What fatty meat roasted with hoisin and garnished with savory green onions isn’t mouth-wateringly good?), I thought I would attempt to make my own pork belly gua bao.

I had about a pound of the leanest pork belly I could find and marinated the meat in a shio koji brine. Basically I took all the shio koji I had left (about 1.5 cups, some sugar and 4 cups of water) and placed it in a Ziplock bag overnight. If you are using shio koji as a salt replacement, a good rule of thumb is whatever the amount of salt is required, double it for shio koji. The shio koji is salty (but less salt is actually used) and adds a mellow, sweet depth that regular salt does not possess.

I admit, I cheated and went to one the many frozen dim sum shops in town and picked up some of the clamshell baos. I purchased 20 for about $9. I thought I got ripped off since there wasn’t a price for the baos at all in the store, as prices seemed to be randomly calculated by the little Taiwanese lady at the counter. She told me 50 cent apiece, but since she charged me only $9, I suspect her math was a bit off. “It’s probably what it should be in term of price,” I muttered to myself. She did tell me the cheaper Szechuan rectangular versions were essentially the same as the clamshell style, in terms of taste.

Using my Japanese mandoline to thinly slice the cucumbers, carrots and daikon was such a pleasure! I love that contraption, but you have to give it some respect or it will easily slice off several layers of skin before you can cry out loud in knowing agony (The ‘Why did I not use the finger guard’ agony?).

I pickled all the veg with some mirin, rice vinegar, salt and a touch of water–leaving overnight also.

roasted pork belly — oh yeahhh!

Roasted pork belly is so darn good, only because it’s so damn fatty. It’s hard not to appreciate the simple beauty of pork meat commingling with glistening layers of fat. Chinese BBQ pork belly with the crunchy skin on, has got to be one of the greatest pleasures in life. You only live once right?!

I placed the pork belly on a cookie sheet with a relatively high lip. Poured some broth and some water onto the pan and tightly covered up the pork belly in tinfoil.

The divine aromatics of roasted pig filled the room. Oh yes, that is some meaty manna from heaven!

2.5 hrs later, I took the tinfoil off and left the pan in for another 20 minutes to crisp up the top fatty layer of the roasted pork.

I was so excited by how good it looked, I quickly steamed the baos, got out the hoisin sauce and prepared the veggies. They look pretty good, no?

momofuku-esque pork belly buns with pickled daikon, carrots and cucumbers

They were tasty. Yum, wow–words cannot describe how surprised I was that they turned out so well and how easy it all was. Even my mom who normally abhors eating any sort of fat, ate one. My father, who nary utters a word these days (he’s not well), uttered, ” Oh that was good.”

So yes, pork belly in the belly makes people happy it would seem!

Shio Koji – Day 6: Use It Before You Lose It

shio koji on day 6 – it’s ready!


The shio koji is ready. It’s a lovely, pleasantly salty white paste. A hand blender will break down the remaining rice bits if you want a smoother consistency. With the warm weather, the ferment time was pretty quick and it was fun to watch the shio koji transform over the week.

Now I am curious to use the shio koji in some foodstuffs. Marinating with it seems to be a natural start.

ribs slathered in shio koji

I decided to use about two tablespoons to marinate two racks of pork ribs.

I allowed the ribs sit in the shio koji overnight and bbq’ed today.

The ribs were delicious! The shio koji left the ribs flavourful and succulent. I have to say this attempt was a success. The picky family approved also.

looks good!

My friend, Yvonne, who owns Sakanaya Seafoods, suggested we try marinating the shio koji in tofu and also pickle some vegetables.

Will post the results of our continued experiments.

Shio Koji – Day 5: Uncertainty

The shio koji is looking great, I am almost thinking it might be ready. Judging from some photos I have seen of packaged products and what Kasugai-san from Keyope said to me, it could be done.

We have finally received some warm weather and that has helped to propel this ferment faster than expected.

The mash is very loose today and continues to emanate a slight sweet banana scent. The mellow salt flavour continues to evolve also.

Shio Koji – Day 4: Loosey Goosey

Change is the only constant.

Seeing this in a very small way with this shio koji mixture.

It is much looser, mushier with the rice kernels starting to become less blunt and more round, as enzymes work to break the starch down further.

The banana scent is there, but the big change is the taste: less of the harsh saltiness and a more interesting depth is evident (Hello Umami). There is even a hint of sweetness surfacing.

I am starting to understand how this paste could be a great salt replacement.

Shio Koji – Day 2: Goopy

The koji and salt have sopped up all the water and the mixture looks rather thick and inert. The smells are wonderful though, and certainly lively.

Koji has a quintessential chestnut scent and I can definitely smell that lovely fragrance coming out of the jar.

I used the mason lid to cover the mixture, but am not going to use the ring to tighten.
Some people say you can just use a paper towel to cover your container too–just something to limit the bacteria or dust that may fall into the jar.

Making Shio Koji – Day 1

Shio koji. Shio koji. Shio koji. Try saying that fast three times.I have been hearing about this wondrous concoction called shio koji, a flavour enhancer that imbues a salty equivalent to regular old salt with half the actual salt content. Shio koji is also rich in enzymes which aid in digestion and are good for overall health.  In Japan, people use shio koji to marinate meats, salt tofu, pickle vegetables, in salad dressings and even in some desserts. It is a condiment of yore, used in the old days to preserve and marinate foods, but a renaissance is taking place with a new generation beguiled by the old standby’s modern usages.

I was indeed curious about shio koji due mainly to my love of sake. The main ingredient in shio koji is koji, which is also used extensively in sake-making. Koji is steamed rice that has been inoculated with aspergillus oryzae. This mold creates an enzymatic process which converts the rice starch into useable sugar. Essentially a form of malting, the rice surface becomes speckled with sugar and possesses aromatics reminiscent of sweet chestnuts.

Adding salt (aka shio) to the koji and letting it sit in room temperature for about 7-14 days (make sure to mix well each day) breaks it down further, producing a briny fermented paste. This condiment can be kept in the fridge for a week and used in recipes as a healthier replacement for salt.

So it seems the permutations with koji are endless—not only is it utilized in the manufacturing

of sake,  shochu, miso, mirin, amazake, and  soy sauce, we can add shio koji to the list. Are you interested to see how umami-enhancing shio koji is?

I sure am.

Let’s find out. I am going to make some, thanks to a gift of fresh koji from local sake brewery, Keyope, in Richmond.

This is the recipe as provided to me by Toji (master brewer) Yoshiaki Kasugai at Keyope:


Shio Koji Recipe

200 g                koji

200 – 300 cc    water  (I used just over 1 C)

60 g                  salt


Mix koji with salt. Use your hands to rub the ingredients together.

This helps to separate the koji which might be stuck together.

Once combined, place in a non-metal container. (I used a mason jar.)

Pour water into the dry ingredients and mix well.

Leave the container in room temperature for 7-14 days (shorter if warmer out; longer if cold) and remember to mix well once each day. Keep it loosely covered, as the mixture is fermenting and can explode from gas build up if covered too tightly.


Here’s what it looks like newly combined. It is salty as heck! The weather is pretty warm these days so I anticipate it will be done rather quickly.

I will post pix of what it looks like each day.