Over 100 Years of Kobe’s Famous Butaman Pork Buns; Looking to Future Evolution while Preserving Heritage

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Pork buns being made at Roshoki

KOBE — Butaman steamed pork buns are a specialty of Kobe, where there are many long-established shops and restaurants famous for the food. Hot buns with a savory filling are a favorite takeout dish for locals and tourists alike. Now, over a century after its inception in Japan, there is a movement to further the evolution of butaman while preserving traditions.

Making butaman a global food

In the Nankinmachi Square, in the center of Kobe’s Nankinmachi Chinatown, people line up outside the Roshoki pork bun restaurant. Roshoki’s buns are called buta manju and they’re about the size of a child’s fist. Priced at ¥100, including tax, the restaurant says they sell an average of 13,000 per day.

The restaurant, founded in 1915, is considered to be the “birthplace of pork buns in Japan.” The first owner, who came from China, and his Japanese wife created a stuffed pork bun by arranging Tianjin baozi, Chinese steamed buns, with different seasonings to suit Japanese tastes. The restaurant’s buns, which were cheap and convenient, became popular, and many other pork bun shops opened in the area.

Eisei So, a member of the third generation of the family to run the restaurant, has dedicated himself to continuing the popular bun. His goal is to spread pork buns all over the world. 

The number of foreign visitors to Japan has recently returned to the pre-pandemic level. A three-day festival held in Nankinmachi during the Chinese New Year season in February this year attracted about 170,000 people, including foreign tourists.

“I want to make the word ‘butaman’ known all over the world,” he said enthusiastically.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Eisei So talks about his passion for butaman pork buns in front of the Roshoki port bun restaurant in Chuo Ward, Kobe, which has a long line of customers.

Bringing community together

There is also a movement to promote butaman as part of the local culture.

In 2011, the “Kobe Butaman Summit” was launched to enliven the city through butaman, with the initiative taken by Takashi Ando, managing director of Sannomiya Ikkanrou, a company that operates Chinese restaurants also known for their pork buns.

The event has been held almost every year, attracting many visitors each time. Alongside ordinary pork buns, original styles such as those made with truffles or lobster are also sold there.

The event has also featured a buta pan pork bread made by the long-established Isuzu Bakery, at Ando’s request. 

Ando said: “If more shops sell their original butaman, the event will be more exciting. We also welcome businesses from other industries to join our efforts.”

He hopes the community will be united by collaboration with other industries without necessarily adhering to the conventional concept of pork buns.

Continued evolution

Butaman really took root and grew in Kobe.

“I believe that butaman will continue to be loved by people of all ages even if it changes, thanks to its tradition and background of being passed down from our predecessors,” So said.

Starting in 2022, Roshoki has organized the “Dream Butaman Project,” where pork buns that are developed in collaboration with food-related businesses in the city are sold for a limited period, and the proceeds are used for food and nutrition education projects.

“The more varieties of butaman we can offer, the more interesting our project will be,” So said.

Pork buns will continue to evolve as one of the major players in Kobe’s food culture.