Citizens! Welcome to New Year’s Day of 2024 (by the Western Gregorian Calendar!) – I know I speak for all of TFD Nation when I say that we all hope for a year filled with peace, prosperity and greatly auspicious deeds by those truly deserving of it! We are still several weeks away from Chinese Lunar New Year, but the Chinese above all others know how to kick off a celebration and their invention of Cantonese roast pork, aka char siu, is one of My favorite celebratory meals and today’s recipe of note! 😀
As the Autarch of Authenticity, few things irk Me more than a recipe that fails to shake the pillars of Heaven with its respect for tradition and observance of due culinary propriety. That said, there are some TECHNIQUES in a traditional recipe that can be updated to use precise modern methodologies, sources and seasonings resulting in a superior end product. My recipe is indeed a Janus – most suitable for the first recipe of January, which is named after Janus as the month faces both past and future!
In the spirit of January and the New Year, I have decided to gird My culinary loins to create nothing less than the ULTIMATE char siu recipe for the delight of TFD Nation!
Char siu (Chinese: 叉燒; pinyin: chāshāo; Cantonese Yale: chāsīu) is a Cantonese–style of barbecued pork. Originating in Guangdong, it is eaten with rice, used as an ingredient for noodle dishes or in stir fries, and as a filling for char siu bao or pineapple buns. Five-spice powder is the primary spice, honey or other sweeteners are used as a glaze, and the characteristic red color comes from the red yeast rice when made traditionally. It is classified as a type of siu mei (燒味), Cantonese roasted meat.
Pork cuts used for char siu can vary, but a few main cuts are common:
Pork belly – produces juicy and fattier char siu
Pork butt (shoulder) – produces leaner char siu
Pork neck end – very marbled (jyu geng yuk)
Char siu literally means “fork roasted” (siu being burn/roast and cha being fork, both noun and verb) after the traditional cooking method for the dish: long strips of seasoned boneless pork are skewered with long forks and placed in a covered oven or over a fire. In ancient times, wild boar and other available meats were used to make char siu.
However, in modern times, the meat is typically a shoulder cut of domestic pork, seasoned with a mixture of honey, five-spice powder, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, red food coloring (not a traditional ingredient but very common in today’s preparations and is optional), and sherry or rice wine (optional). These seasonings turn the exterior layer of the meat dark red, similar to the “smoke ring” of American barbecues. Maltose is used to give char siu its characteristic shiny glaze.
Char siu is typically consumed with a starch, whether inside a bun (chasiu baau, 叉燒包), with noodles (chasiu min, 叉燒麵), or with rice (chasiu faan, 叉燒飯) in fast food establishments, or served alone as a centerpiece or main dish in traditional family dining establishments. If it is purchased outside of a restaurant, it is usually taken home and used as one ingredient in various complex main courses consumed at family meals. TFD prefers to snack it straight from the fridge when it’s a leftover!
The ovens used to roast char siu are usually large gas rotisseries. Since ovens are not standard in Hong Kong households, char siu is usually purchased from a siu mei establishment, which specializes in meat dishes such as char siu, soy sauce chicken, white cut chicken, roasted goose, and roasted pork. These shops usually display the merchandise by hanging them in the window.
As noted in an excellent and thorough examination on going.com:
Despite their contentious relationship, many of Hong Kong’s most beloved dishes, including char siu, originated in China, specifically in Guangdong province during the Zhou dynasty. Char siu roughly translates as ‘to fork roast,’ giving insight as to its origins.
Around 3,000 years ago, cooking was significantly more rustic, and the traditional method for roasting involved simply skewering strips of seasoned meat, such as boar, pig, or chicken, and placing them over an open fire. This form of cooking persisted long past the end of the dynasty into the 1800s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many Chinese residents were dispersed throughout Southeast Asia, bringing their popular and carefully perfected style of cooking to Hong Kong. Widescale industrialization from the 1950s until the late 1960s led to an influx of people and subsequently a higher cost of living (today, Hong Kong remains one of the world’s most expensive cities).
Hongkonger Kelvin Ho, AKA Epicurus Hong Kong on Instagram, is one of the longest-running and most well-known food and drink reviewers in the region. “For my family and many others, roasted meats were considered an extravagant item, so these dishes were treasured by those who ate them. However, char siu was often poor quality and sliced thinly to make it more affordable.”
As time went on, restaurants began to source better quality pork, transforming an already-loved dish into a cult favorite while retaining its modest price.
At this point, char siu with rice became a staple for residents and workers battling a high cost of living, and shops were opening across Hong Kong. Ho remembers, “When I was a child, we looked forward to eating char siu at the now-closed Lung Moon Restaurant in Wan Chai.
Locals would bring along their newspapers and birdcages and enjoy the slightly blackened char siu.” Although brightly colored bird cages may have now been banned, enjoying char siu is akin to a European coffee shop today, somewhere to catch up with friends, read the paper, and watch a colorful array of characters over a hot drink.
The secrets of char siu
The major ingredients making up the famous char siu marinade are honey, hoisin, soy sauce, and Chinese Five Spice. Although char siu is often served with rice, its winning feature is the ability to be enjoyed without accompaniment; the crispy, sweet, and tender flavor carries the dish by itself.
Fermented bean curd is commonly added to the recipe to create its signature red color, however increasingly, thanks to the slow phase-out of both wood-fire pits and charcoal ovens, which aid in creating the slightly charred appearance, chefs are adding red food coloring to recreate the effect.
Although various cuts of the pig are used today, ‘floor scraping’ pork was a hit in the 1950s. The name refers to the pigs who were so fat that their stomachs would touch the floor. However, in the modern day, a more equal lean-to-fat ratio is preferred.
Modern-day Hong Kong strikes a balance between its Asian heritage and 21st-century access to a wider net of fresh ingredients. Amongst the many old-fashioned siu mei shops, high-end establishments are celebrating the classic in their own way. For example, Mott 32, one of the world’s best Chinese restaurants, uses sustainable pork and Yellow Mountain honey from China, while The Chairman in Central steps away from a traditional glaze and instead uses Zhongshan sugar for a sweet finish.
SCMP.com further enlightens regarding the history of the dish:
The term “char siu” appeared in royal recipe books over 3,000 years ago in the Zhou dynasty. This was the era when menus featured a lot of grill or barbecue recipes. The original Chinese character was akin to that for skewered pork, but as time wore on the recipes evolved to improve on the marinade, baste and the all-important fat distribution.
As a reflection of changing tastes, during the 1950s the best variety in town was “floor scraping” char siu. Fortunately, the term did not apply to the cooking method, but to the pigs used that were so fat their bellies scraped the floor – a sign of the preferred fat content at the time.
“We have two different kinds of bastes at Tin Lung Heen,” says chef de cuisine of the restaurant, Paul Lau Ping-lui. “When we use local mui tou (pork shoulder), we baste it with osmanthus honey, and use a plain honey base on the Iberico pork: there’s more fat when we use the Spanish produce, which dissolves into more of a char.”
Menex Cheung, executive chef and chef de cuisine of China Tang Landmark, believes that char siu is the city’s quintessential comfort food. “In my opinion, char siu in Hong Kong is a unique culture itself, whether it is from a classy Chinese restaurant or a siu mei food stall in the wet market,” he says. “Its uniqueness lies in the proportion of fat and lean meat – such as 1:1, 3:7 or all fat – the caramelisation and other details, which could not be experienced anywhere else on earth.”
“We try our best to maintain a 3:7 fat-to-meat ratio as we consider this to be the golden ratio for char siu,” says James Ng, a third-generation restaurateur specialising in roast meats. Co-founder of Goose Manor, James’ family has been operating famous roast goose restaurant Yue Kee, in Sham Tseng, since his grandfather’s time. “We use the mui tou (TFD NOTE: should be “tau!”) cut of Chinese pork and we’ve got a very steady supplier who provides us with a consistent product with the right fat distribution.”
I personally 100% concur with Chef Ng – the ideal fat-to-meat ration is indeed 3:7, and the ONLY cut I endorse for making the best char siu is in fact mui tau (pork collar in English). If you are lucky enough to have access to Chinese butcher, you can show them this text in case your Cantonese pronunciation is off (and it usually is for Westerners, Myself included!):
Almost every Hong Kong roaster uses the mui tau, but it isn’t the only pork cut that can be used for char siu. In the past, pork belly was popular, especially among those with more physically demanding jobs, such as farming. Bib Gourmand restaurant Tai Wing Wah in Yuen Long, in the northwestern New Territories, used to serve “tor dei” char siu, made with pork belly so fat that it’s said the pig’s belly would “tor dei”, or brush the floor. As much as I adore fat, stick with the mui tai cut for this.
Since I have placed the “Supreme” adjective in the title, this recipe had better live up to that rarefied descriptor! I help My char siu to scale the gustatory heights of Mount 泰山, greatest of the 5 Sacred Mountains of China, by using what virtually all of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong do nowadays – the unmatched Iberico pork from Spain! Fattened on acorns and wild herbs, it is – quite simply – the world’s ultimate pork and you can buy Iberico pork collar from here.
Obviously, the world’s best pork isn’t cheap – so for more frugal wallets, I endorse the famed Kurobota black pigs (aka Berkshire) favored by the Japanese and British – while Kurobota pork is not as transcendent as Iberico, it is still WAY better than most other pork you can buy – a lesser but still superior version. You can buy Kurobota pork collar from here. For those competitive BBQ fiends, pork collar is also known as the “money muscle” on the competitive circuit because it wins you prize money!
One trick I use for supremely tender pork with even more umami is to use shio koji in the marinade – I use it to great success in mimicing dry-aging in meat when I want to “cheat” instead of buying the actual item. It serves the same function in this recipe whilst also adding that strong umami flavor I find so addictive. You can easily buy it from here. I also call for the ultimate cooking technique for tenderness – sous vide! With it, you can PRECISELY control the cooking time and end result to perfection!
One of the most important flavor profiles in good char siu will surprise you – it’s actually from insanely-strong Chinese rose spirit, distilled at an eye watering 49% alcohol content! Fear not, the alcohol is volatile and burns off in cooking, leaving only that sweet, rosy flavor behind that is the backbone of char siu savor. This is a very good brand and you really don’t want to skip this ingredient.
One of the main reasons Char siu has that distinct red color is from red fermented tofu, which contributes not only color but umami depth of flavor as well. Red fermented tofu is easily found in most any Chinese grocery store or from here. I tend to like a slightly spicy kick to my char siu – and I find the best way to get that is to use an atypical Asian condiment (at least for this recipe) – it is Korean Gochujang pepper paste and you can buy an excellent version from here, which is mildly spicy and sweet.
Chinese five spice powder is another major part of the char siu flavor profile – you can easily buy a good version from here. Kadoya brand sesame oil is the best in the world, and the only brand I use or endorse – you can grab a bottle from here. Hoisin sauce is also important in the marinade – it’s quite common in most grocery stores these days, but this is My preferred version. Dark soy sauce with mushroom flavor adds color, umami and salt to the marinade – you can buy it from here.
The glaze is a large part of what can make or break a good char siu – it must be high in sugar so it caramelizes, yet it must also have savor to avoid becoming cloying. A traditional glaze typically uses maltose, a VERY sticky version of sugar that is not overly sweet but works perfectly in BBQ glazes – it is in fact what glazes Peking Duck! Some versions also use honey – I chose a highly-eccentric blend of maltose (buy it here) and lemon-honey jam from Yunnan province – it’s delicious, buy it from here.
To add even more red color and a goodly hit of spices and sweetness, I also call for a highly unorthodox choice – curried ketchup! My dear friend and acclaimed Chinese cookbook author Carolyn Phillips first showed me the path in regards to considering this ingredient, as she uses regular ketchup in her char siu recipe. I personally feel the curried version from Judge Casey’s (buy it here) is an exceptional and superior version of the condiment that is best for use in this recipe – don’t substitute it, please!
Citizens – follow My bold leadership and unfurl the banner of culinary supremacy with Me – this recipe is not cheap, requires some equipment that isn’t standard (sous vide) but trust Me – you will indeed ascend to the heavens, the Kitchen God will announce you as royalty and the Jade Emperor will nod respectfully in your direction – try this recipe and know the TRUTH of Chinese gastronomy in your own home! 😀 Yes, it’s much cheaper and easier to buy it pre-made – but TFD Nation – like Janus – simultaneously preserves tradition while forging a glorious culinary future!!!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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