There’s a common sight in the streets of Chinatown – rows of glistening meats on display in restaurant windows. The meats are varied, from whole browned ducks to huge sides of crispy roast pork, a mouthwatering sight for any meat lover. There is also another item – a fragrant red colored pork that is delicious on its own or served with a bowl of white rice. It is char siu, Chinese barbecued pork, a delicacy very popular with the Chinese community.
Char siu (or cha shao in Mandarin Chinese) is a specialty of the southern Cantonese province of Guangdong. Since most Chinatowns in North America have always been centers for Cantonese immigrants, the char siu has a disproportionate influence on the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora.
There are many different versions of the char siu in China and Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the preference is for lean cuts, usually using the loin. In Singapore, marinades will include more dark soy sauce and less red food coloring. In Hong Kong, fatter cuts like the neck or shoulders are popular. The most popular cut for char siu in China is the pork shoulder cut into long, thin pieces. Nowadays, many innovative chefs have started using heirloom pig breeds like the Kurobuta from Japan or the Iberico from Spain for a high-end version of the char siu.
Seasoning and cooking
Char siu’s patented sweet and salty flavor is the result of a combination of several key ingredients: honey, Chinese five-spice powder, fermented red tofu, black soy sauce, and hoisin sauce. Remember that Chinese black soy sauce is different from the more common light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is less salty, richer in color, and used primarily for marinades or slow cooking. Thick maltose is also added at times for an extra glossy finish. Many restaurants will also add red food coloring to the char siu for a pleasant vibrant color.
Traditionally, char siu is fired suspended from hooks over indirect heat in a charcoal clay oven or specially designed Chinese barbecue gas oven (cabinet or refrigerator shaped). For char siu at home, home cooks can achieve great results using a toaster or conventional oven. An important tip to remember is to place your pork on a metal rack over foil. Since char siu marinade contains sugar, the pork will burn and cling to foil if not placed on a rack.
NiHao Char Siu
NiHao is a contemporary Chinese restaurant located in the historic district of Canton, Baltimore. Led by Lydia Chang, the menu features collaborative Chinese cuisine from chefs Peter and Lisa Chang as well as Pichet Ong. Chef Ong is a five-time James Beard Award nominee, famous for combining classic techniques with innovative style, all inspired by his Southeast Asian heritage.
“My recipe is very old-fashioned – and, in unique and original Chinese fashion, uses a very long list of ingredients,” Chef Ong said. “First make a remarkably spicy and complex lu shui 卤水 (flavored or old water), then incorporated into a sweet and sour marinade. I love my rich, creamy meats, so I prefer the neck or butt, which always pairs well with a bowl of fresh steamed rice and simply blanched Chinese leafy greens.
Chef’s Tip: Be sure to check the oven temperature and move the pan as needed due to hot spots. “I like the burnt ends of the char siu, but the inside should be kept juicy and tender. You can also cook it on an outdoor grill – it’s a barbecue after all, ”said Chef Ong.
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 2 inch piece of ginger, sliced into ¼ inch pieces
- 2 stalks of green onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 8 garlic cloves, crushed
- 4 pieces of dried orange peels
- tsp of cloves
- 2 stars anise
- 1 cinnamon bark
- 2 black cardamom pods
- ½ cup of Shaoxing wine
- 1 cup rock sugar
- ½ teaspoon white pepper, ground
- 2 tablespoons fermented red tofu, mashed
- 1/2 cup dark red miso
- 1 cup of maltose
- ½ cup of honey
- 1 teaspoon red yeast rice, ground
- 3 tablespoons of hoisin sauce
- 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons sweet soy sauce, Kwong Hung Seng brand
- 4 lbs pork neck pork, cut into 2 inch strips, fat intact
- In a 4-quart pot, over medium-low heat, add the oil and ginger, garlic, onion, orange zest, cloves, star anise and cinnamon, and make sweat until the aromatics are caramelized and the mixture is very fragrant, 6-8 minutes.
- Deglaze with the Shaoxing wine, cover the pan leaving an inch of opening and bring the mixture to a gentle boil.
- Add the pieces of icing sugar and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes so that the flavor is released and the sugar dissolves and the mixture thickens slightly. Let stand until the mixture has cooled.
- Filter the mixture into a large storage container. Add the red miso, maltose, honey, red yeast rice, hoisin and soy sauces. Using a hand blender, mix the mixture until you get a smooth paste.
- In a storage container with a lid, pour the marinade over the pork. Rub and mix so that it is evenly distributed and the meat is covered with the marinade. Store marinated pieces of meat in the refrigerator for at least 2 days, turning them twice for flavor to develop.
- Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the pieces of meat on a cooking grid on another baking sheet lined with foil. Save the rest of the marinade for brushing. Add water to the foil-lined baking sheet until the water level reaches ¼ “. This is to prevent smoking from the drip.
- Bake at 475 F for 12 minutes on the upper oven rack until the meat begins to char. Reduce oven to 375 F and bake 10 more minutes.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Brush the meat with a pastry brush. Turn the pieces of pork over and baste the other side. Return the baking sheet to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes at 375 F.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven, baste the pieces with the rest of the marinade. Return the baking sheet to the oven, turning it for even caramelization, for another 10 minutes. At this point, the total cooking time should be around 42 minutes. Check the internal temperature of the meat with a probe thermometer. If it is 150 F or more, the meat is done. If not, return the baking sheet to the oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes more.
- Let the meat rest for 5 minutes at room temperature before slicing and serving.
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