A close-up of nikuman pork buns in a bamboo steamer

Nikuman: Chinese Buns for the Japanese Palate

Japan has an interesting food culture full of original dishes. However, some of Japan’s most popular and tasty dishes are actually from other countries and have changed to fit the Japanese palate. Japanese ramen, adapted from Chinese ramen, is probably the most popular example, but another example is Chinese steamed buns—known in Japan as nikuman.

Read on to learn all about this tasty treat, some of its fun variations, and where to try it!

What is Nikuman?

Nikuman is a Japanese version of China’s signature steamed pork buns baozi. While there are plenty of variations nowadays, the traditional and most common filling is a combination of ground pork, shiitake mushroom and cabbage with different seasonings or flavorings. One of my personal favorites is garlic.

The dough that makes up the outside is made of flour and is quite soft and fluffy. It also has a sweetness to it that combines with the savory filling to create a sweet and savory experience. Nikuman is also served piping hot, with a very warm outside and potentially molten inside. That’s why it’s important to give it time to cool before biting into it.

A nikuman pork bun split in half with mustard on one side
When it comes to sauce, mustard is nikuman's one true love, adding tang and (a little) spice to the dish. Image via Instagram (@pangadaisukidesu)

Steamed buns like this are sometimes called the Eastern version of a sandwich, but that feels a bit strange. In Japan, nikuman is eaten more as a snack (or a dessert based on the filling) and is especially popular among students after school and businessmen during lunch or on the way home. Its warmth also lends it to warm weather, with convenience stores offering this snack hot from September to March or April.

Fun fact: Nikuman actually has two other names. When steamed buns got their start in Japan, shops sold them as Chukaman. Chuka is a common word referring to Chinese foods, so the old name meant Chinese buns. You may sometimes see the name ‘chukaman’ even today.

However, in Osaka, they’re known as butaman, meaning pork buns. The reason is that, while ‘niku’ generally means meat in Japanese, ‘niku’ refers to beef in Osaka. That’s why Osaka folks opt for the word ‘buta’ meaning pork to specify the type of meat inside.

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Nikuman Variations

While ground pork is the star of this tasty treat, convenience stores and restaurants have created some fun variations that we love.


A curry pork bun with red dough and chili sprinkles next to a white pork bun
Color and shape are good ways to tell pork bun flavors apart. This orange-red one is obviously a spicy curry flavor. Image via Instagram (@rl_tama_n)

Kare is the Japanese word for curry, so these buns are curry buns. Kare-man usually have a yellow, curry-esque outside and a delicious curry inside. The curry inside can vary based on the shop and region, with pork curry and mutton curry being common. You may also see variations of Japanese curry, Indian curry or Thai curry fillings.


Hands rip a pizza bun to show the marinara and cheese inside
Pizza can be expensive in Japan, so these pizza buns are an affordable, tasty way to get your pizza fix. Image via Instagram (@keicyon.megu)

Pizza-man is another popular steamed bun choice with a reddish hue on the outside. The inside is most commonly filled with marinara sauce and cheese. However, some shops will go all out with ingredients like pepperoni, veggies, multiple types of cheese and more.


This type is more common in areas like Nagasaki and the rest of the island of Kyushu. Tonporoman switches out the ground pork with braised pork belly. It also has a thinner bun, resulting in a larger focus on the savory, tender pork.

Many tonporo buns with braised meat sandwiched in a Chinese bun
Tonporoman is definitely a meatier experience, being with a 60% meat, 39% bun and 1% sauce. Image via Instagram (@ti081009)


An-man is our first step into the dessert bun territory. This bun is filled with a combination red bean paste and black sesame. Red bean paste is common in Japanese desserts and black sesame is very aromatic, so it’s a great sweet treat. Pair it with some tea for a tasty combo.

Dessert buns

There are other dessert buns that you can find at different shops, in different regions or as a seasonal flavor. For example, chocolate cream, melon cream, or custard-filled buns can be found at different restaurants on dessert menus. Meanwhile, Uji Matcha-man is a tasty dessert bun that features a matcha chocolate filling and only pops up from time to time at Lawson.

One of the great things about nikuman is that you can find different designs like pandas, pigs and characters this chocobo from Final Fantasy!

Limited-time Variations

Japan loves a limited-edition product whether it’s Japanese ramen, McDonald’s burgers or snacks. The same goes for nikuman. A great example is the cherry blossom bun that comes out in March or April, with a pink outside and a pink cream inside. Meanwhile, Korean barbecue buns show up randomly throughout the year at some convenience stores. My personal favorite is a gyoza bun that uses a filling with the same flavor as the filling of gyoza.

Where did it Come From?

Nikuman came to Japan via its Chinatowns, where small shops sold it. However, many people credit Nakamuraya, a Japanese company, with popularizing this treat. Story goes that Nakamuraya started selling nikuman as chukaman in 1927, making it more available to Japanese consumers. The history of steamed buns is quite long in China, but that’s not really our area of expertise.

What’s the Difference Between Nikuman and Bao?

Five Chinese bao buns sit in a steamer basket
Is this nikuman or is it bao? Good question, but we don't have a clear answer. Image via Unsplash

Many people think of them as being one and the same, and that may actually be true. However, some people say that there are VERY small differences in the filling and dough.

Nikuman is based off of Chinese bao, specifically char siu bao. However, char siu bao tends to have chopped pork, while nikuman uses ground pork. Plus, bao’s pork filling usually includes a bit of sweet barbecue sauce with it, making it a bit more dressed up than Japan’s simple filling.

Bao also tends towards a fluffier, doughier texture compared to the smoother dough of Japan’s version. Some say the differences in the outside dough is due to the type of flour traditionally used in each.

These differences may also just be in our heads, though.

Where to Buy Nikuman in Japan

Two pork buns next to a red 551 Horai shop box and mustard packets
We may be biased, but one of the best places for nikuman is this Osaka chain, 551 Horai. Image via Instagram (@kazunobunakaho)

Like we mentioned earlier, you can find nikuman at places like convenience stores, restaurants, specialty shops and in Japan’s Chinatowns. Convenience stores may not have them year-round, with fall to early spring being their popular season. However, convenience stores will have plenty of fun options.

Restaurants and specialty shops may also have cool options as well. Meanwhile, Chinatowns, like the one in Yokohama, will have classic nikuman as well. Supermarkets are also great for getting frozen nikuman to eat at home (if you live in Japan).

If you want to try one while traveling around Osaka, try out Horai 551. This shop has been around for decades (since 1945) and always has long lines of people waiting to buy fresh made buns. They’re all over Osaka and have shops all over the Kansai area. Plus, you can get your buns to-go, so you can enjoy them hot at the shop or on the way to your next destination.

A hand holds two halves of a nikuman pork bun in the air
Shin-Osaka station actually has a couple of 551 Horai shops, so many people get some for their bullet train rides! Image via Instagram (@jostagram_temma)

Have you ever tried nikuman? Is it different from Chinese baozi? What filling would you like to try? Let us know in the comments!