During my plane ride from Taipei to Hong Kong last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the one thing I wanted to taste the most upon landing: Char Siu Pork (叉燒肉 in Chinese). The shiny, red, sticky and mouth-watering glazed Cantonese BBQ pork is a permanent fixture in Chinatown shop windows across North America. However, unless you dedicate yourself to trying out all of the vendors, it’s hard to remember who has the best offerings. I was hoping that the birthplace of this iconic meat preparation would somehow have magical BBQ pork everywhere.
The experience was really great for one thing in particular: I got to see the street stall vendors and restaurant chefs actually make the pork in front of me, rather than simply slicing up the finished product. That’s when I first had the great idea to take a crack at making it myself.
While there’s no way you (or I) could make this dish at home better than a professional chef (rotating charcoal grills help a lot!) at least you can avoid eating any questionable food colourings or mystery meats. Instead, pick a beautiful piece of trustworthy homegrown pork and create a healthier version at home (especially now that the Ontario Pork green and white labels are on so many of their products). And when I say healthy, I certainly don’t mean devoid of fat. In fact, I would strongly advise against using tenderloin and opt for a well-marbled mixed-fatty-and-lean piece of pork butt or shoulder instead. The alternating bites of oily charred fat against the smooth lean meat are what make this dish absolutely irresistible.
Normally when I purchase char siu pork, I can’t help myself and end up eating most of it on the trip home. However, if you are making this dish at home, I would recommend slicing it up (against the grain), spooning some of the serving sauce over it, and presenting it on its own plate. For a simple meal, my favourite (and a classic) vegetable to serve with this dish is gai lan (otherwise known as kai lan or Chinese broccoli), steamed and drizzled with some oyster sauce on top. It’s a winning combination.
This recipe takes a lot of patience, but it is not very difficult, and is definitely worth the wait.
- 2lb well-marbled pork butt or shoulder (I used shoulder)
- 4 tbsp salt
- 4 cups water
- 5 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 4 tbsp Chinese rice/cooking wine
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1tsp five spice powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder (or minced garlic)
- 4 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp water
- The brine: Slice the pork along the grain into about 1 inch thick slices. Place pork in salt water brine overnight. Brining the pork is completely optional, but you will get much better results this way.
- The marinade: Combine all the marinade ingredients in a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and stir occasionally for about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. Once cool, make sure the pork is well-drained. Pat dry with a towel and place pork into a shallow tray or Ziploc bag. Pour the marinade over the pork, cover with plastic wrap or seal the bag, and let refrigerate for at least 6-12 hours.
- The roasting: When you’re ready, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Gently shake off any excess marinade (though having the pieces well-coated is important) and place the pork on a grilling rack with a tray underneath (also important). Roast the pork for about 20 minutes on each side. Save any drippings at the bottom of the tray.
- The glaze: combine all glaze ingredients into a small saucepan or frying pan and stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes or until incorporated.
- After about 40 minutes, remove the pork from the oven. Using tongs or chopsticks, place the pieces of the pork one at a time in the glaze liquid and coat each piece generously.
- Bring the oven temperature up to 425 degrees F and place the pork back in the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove and let rest.
- The serving sauce: Pour any of the pork drippings into the glaze saucepan and add a little soy sauce and water to taste. Bring to medium heat and stir occasionally for 5 minutes before turning off the heat. This is your serving sauce.
- The timing on this recipe is highly arbitrary. For full marination and brine, you could take up to two days, but it is entirely possible to do it in much less time. There is also very little effort required during the waiting process.