Kalua Pork Buns

For a dish that’s so flavorful and simple to make, Kalua Pork should really be on your dinner table tonight.  Kalua pork is a Hawaiian island favorite, traditionally made from roasting a whole pig in an underground oven called an imu, which is filled with burning wood and covered with banana and ti leaves.  When made at home, the Kalua Pork is a no fuss recipe that can easily be made healthier, especially with a secret swap out ingredient.
One of the key ingredients for home cooks making Kalua Pork is liquid smoke.  If you’ve ever used it before you know that it’s some pretty potent stuff.  Liquid smoke is made when smoke from burning hickory is condensed into liquid form.  It’s added to Kalua pork to imitate the taste of burning koa wood, the type of wood traditionally used to cook this Hawaiian specialty.  The problem with using liquid smoke is that it’s extremely assertive in its smokey taste and can easily overwhelm a dish if you don’t using it sparingly.  This is where smokey, savory Lapsang Souchong tea comes into the picture.

The leaves of Lapsang Souchong, a black tea, are dried over pinewood fires which is how the tea gets its characteristic smokiness.  Where liquid smoke is bold, and one-note in flavor, the smokey taste of Lapsang Souchong is gentler and more well-rounded.  The tea’s sweeter notes are reminiscent of the layers of banana and ti leaves that are laid over and around the pork while it is roasting away in the imu pit.  Unlike the oddly concocted process used to get liquid smoke flavoring, Lapsang Souchong gets its smokey flavor when tea leaves naturally absorb their ambient smokey environment.  Its taste is one-of-a-kind and something any tea lover shouldn’t miss.

Although it’s common to use the pork shoulder cut to make Kalua Pork, I’ve made also made this recipe with the leaner pork loin cut with great results.  If you are using pork shoulder, make sure to trim off any and all the visible fat on the outer edge of the meat.  With pork loin you can leave some more of the fat on since it’s such a skinny cut of meat.  If you are interested to see the difference between the two, the first picture of this post shows Kalua Pork from a pork loin cut, and the second photo shows the darker meat from the pork shoulder cut (yes, I made it twice…it’s that easy and that good!).

Pickled Red Onions make the perfect finish for this meaty, luscious braised pork.  The onions add a crunchy, bright bite to the small sandwiches and a beautiful punch of hot-pink color as well.  Stuffed into make-ahead steamed Chinese Fold-Over Buns, Kalua Pork makes a tasty tea snack, easy portable lunch, or unexpected gourmet dinner.

Hawaiian Kalua Pork Buns with Pickled Red Onions


{Kalua Pork}

3 lb pork shoulder trimmed of all fat on edges or pork loin

2 tsp Hawaiian salt

2 cups brewed Lapsang Souchong tea (2 Tbsp of loose tea brewed for 5 minutes in 212 degrees F water)

{Pickled Red Onions}

1 medium red onion

1 tsp salt

2 Tbsp white sugar

3/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 tsp black pepper

{Chinese Fold-Over Buns}


scallions, thinly sliced

cilantro, roughly chopped


crock pot

medium bowl

2 forks


1.)  Place trimmed pork shoulder, salt, and tea in the crockpot.  Flip the pork over a few times to distribute the salt evenly, then cover the crockpot with the lid and set on high.  Cook the pork for 3-3 1/2 hours, flipping the meat every hour or so.

2.)  Make the Pickled Red Onions.  Very thinly slice a red onion.  Scatter the salt on the sliced onions and let them sit for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes, rinse and drain the onions thoroughly under cold water.  Add the vinegar, sugar, and pepper to the onions and mix until the sugar dissolves.  Place the bowl of pickled onions in the fridge to chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

3.)  When the meat is done, it will pull apart easily into shreds using two forks.  Remove any remaining bits of fat, and shred the entire piece of meat.

4.)  Stuff the shredded Kalua Pork into freshly steamed Chinese Fold-Over Buns, then top with Pickled Red Onions, scallions, and cilantro.  Enjoy!

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Bonnie Eng

Oh yea, I bet they just serve them with Peking Duck? I always find it fascinating to go to Chinese restaurants in other countries. Very interesting to see the differences in how they present…:)


These pork buns look delectable. Wow. I had kalua pork once at a luau in Hawaiian on my honeymoon! Never thought you could make it at home. And funny enough, I’ve been looking for liquid smoke because I saw a pulled pork recipe calling for it. I haven’t been able to spot it though. Anyway, you did an awesome job here!

Bonnie Eng

Thanks so much Monica!! I think it’s always interesting how certain foods bring up very specific memories. =) It’s so incredibly simple to make at home, thanks to the crock pot, and I love that you can make it much healthier too. Lapsang Souchong makes an excellent substitute for liquid smoke in any recipe, just substitute the liquid measure of water with the strongly steeped tea. Thanks again and Happy Friday! =)

Patty Nguyen

I love kalua pork! My recipe is pretty much the same as yours, minus the tea. I will have to hunt some of that down since I know I’d prefer it to the liquid smoke!


Hey Bonnie!

The recipe looks delicious! How much does this recipe yield?? I can’t seem to find it on the page and I was looking to make this for a large quantity of people.