Char siu, the smoky red-glazed pork dripping with sticky caramelised juices that’s commonly seen hanging in the windows of Chinese barbecue shops, is one of the most popular Cantonese dishes. Its Cantonese name – “char” meaning to fork or spike and “siu” meaning to roast or grill – is widely used to describe the pork dish, but in fact it can be applied to any meat. Its English name, barbecue pork, is somewhat misleading, because the product is in fact most commonly prepared by roasting.
The Chinese restaurant kitchen is divided into various areas of specialty, each with its own master chef, and all char siu dishes come under the domain of the siu mei, or Chinese roast master. (The siu mei works alongside the wok master, the yum cha master and the noodle specialists, says GT
’s Chinese cooking expert, Tony Tan.) But you don’t need to be a siu mei to make your own char siu at home.
To start, you need a good cut of pork. The well-muscled and flavoursome neck or shoulder cuts work best here, because these pieces are neither too fatty nor too lean. That is, they have enough fat to prevent them from drying out, yet they’re less fatty than pork belly, which can be too rich in this dish.
The ingredients of the char siu marinade differ “from chef to chef, or cook to cook, and are guarded like crown jewels,” says Tan, but elements common to most recipes are soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and hoisin sauce. While some chefs use maltose to get the signature glazed look, we’ve used honey; it does the trick just as well and its thinner consistency makes it easier to handle.
The pork’s distinctive colour comes from the addition of red fermented bean curd, mashed to a paste, although most recipes also include some red food colouring or vegetable dye to enhance the hue. If you’d prefer to leave out the food colouring, go ahead – it won’t affect the flavour.
For marinating the pork, it’s a good idea to use a sealable plastic bag because it will allow you to expel all the air around the meat so it’s completely enveloped in the marinade. The result is better flavouring per quantity of marinade.
When it comes to cooking, the more traditional method of hanging the pork over a charcoal burner or barbecue gives it a greater depth of smoky flavour – not to mention those “delectable just-burnt bits”, says Tan. Chinese street vendors grill char siu over low embers to maximise the smoked effect.
Roasting in the oven (preferably a woodfired oven), however, can give excellent results too, and we’ve covered both cooking methods here.
The best way to cook your pork on the barbecue is, as Tan suggests, to hang it on hooks over a low-burning fire. On the other hand, you can simply place it on the grill plate of your kettle barbecue instead; a generous scattering of woodchips will give you an extra smoky flavour. In both cases a watchful eye is required and it’s important to cook your meat at a low temperature, turning the pork frequently and basting it continuously, to prevent the sugar in the marinade from burning.
If you choose to oven-roast your char siu, you can afford to be slightly less vigilant: just turn and baste the pork regularly to build up the glaze as it cooks.
Once cooked, char siu is best eaten warm straight from the barbecue while it’s still sticky and tender. Serve it over steamed rice or with a simple Asian-style salad
. For a firmer product better suited to stir-frying, hang the pork in the refrigerator after cooking for up to two days to dry it out – if you can resist its sticky, smoky goodness for long enough, that is.