Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chinese Barbecued Pork (Char Siu)

'Char' - fork, 'siu' - roast; the literal meaning of the Cantonese 'char siu' therefore is 'fork-roasted' meat. Having grown up where famous 'char siu' restaurants are institutionalized and where people make pilgrimages just to eat, I'm very particular about my 'char siu', something that I think is severely lacking in many Chinese restaurants these days. 'Char siu' needs to be sticky and the edges just crisp enough so that when you bite down on the thin layer of fat, it's simultaneously juicy and succulent, oozing with caramelized sweetness. The health conscious amongst us will opt for pork tenderloin which tends to, in my opinion, be so much drier and lacking in character. If you want good 'char siu', choose a beautiful slab of pork belly, preferably heritage so that the layers of fat are perfectly and equally interspersed with tender meat. But if you must, don't go any leaner than the pork butt.

This recipe was a trade secret from my grandmother who sold wonton noodles in her youth. After much trial and error based on her impatient dictation and from my mother's haphazard way of chucking everything together without measurements, I think I have managed to somewhat recreate her famous roasted pork. Traditional recipes call for maltose (malted rice), but I have omitted that so that it works for a Western kitchen. The taste isn't that much different whether or not maltose is used, but I personally prefer using honey as a substitute.

I make my own sweet soy sauce and hoisin sauce, which is what I used for this recipe, but in a pinch, Lee Kum Kee's ready-made sauce will work too. I would recommend actually making your own sweet soy sauce though, it can be used in a variety of things, from stir-fried vegetables to fried rice and noodles, to dipping sauces.

'Char siu' is traditionally served with rice or noodles or as filling for buns. It makes for a very quick lunch if you toss some soba noodles, the 'char siu' and the sauce together with some mushrooms and leeks and top it with a fried egg. It also works excellently in a homemade banh-mi.

Chinese Barbecued Pork (Char Siu)
Cooking time: About 1 hour, marinate overnight
Yields about 4 - 6 servings

1 lb pork belly or pork butt (if using pork belly, score the top rind in a criss-cross fashion with a sharp knife)

Char siu marinade/sauce
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup honey (Or 2 tablespoons honey and 2 tablespoons maltose)
2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce *see recipe below
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce *see recipe below
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five-Spice powder
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
dash white pepper

  1. Mix all ingredients for a marinade in a shallow bowl large enough to accommodate your meat.
  2. Chuck the pork into your marinade bowl and give a good massage. Put a plastic wrap over and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for about 12 - 24 hours.
  3. The next day, put the marinade and the pork in saute pan and simmer over very low heat with 2 tablespoons of water, covered for about 15 minutes to tenderize the meat. In the meantime, fire up the grill or your broiler.
  4. Remove the meat from the marinade and toss either on hot grill or place on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, shiny side up.
  5. While you are grilling your meat, discard the cinnamon stick and star anise from your marinade and reduce the marinade on medium heat until it has thickened into a sauce.
  6. Grill or broil the meat for about 10 minutes on each side, until the edges are crisp and slightly charred.
  7. Remove from the grill, let the meat cool for about 20 minutes (IMPORTANT!) so that the juices don't run out all over the place, slice thinly and drizzle with the 'char siu' sauce before serving.

Recipe for sweet soy sauce
Yields about 8oz.

1 cup (8oz) soy sauce
1/2 cup coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar is fine, just a different taste)
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five-Spice powder
Dash of sesame oil

Heat everything in a saucepan over a low flame. Simmer until the sauce is viscous but still slightly runny. It should also be slightly sticky when you let it dry on the back of a spoon. Store in hermetic bottle in the fridge and it should last about 3 months.

Recipe for hoisin sauce
Yields about 4 oz.

1/4 cup sweet soy sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fermented bean paste
2 teaspoon rice vinegar
2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce (or in a pinch, use Sriracha!)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

I used a mason jar with a lid to mix everything together and when stored in the fridge, it should last for about two months. If the sauce is too runny, you can also add teaspoon of cornstarch diluted in a tablespoon of water.

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