Char siu is a common ingredient in many Chinese dishes. There is nothing quite like a fresh char siu baozi for a quick comfort meal. However, in Mainland China most home cooks do not make their own, because most apartments lack the oven necessary to cook it properly—at least in the cities 25 years ago (personal experience).
When we were living in Chengdu, I had standard Chinese kitchen (it may have been above standard—I had TWO gas rings, so I could cook my rice and vegetables at the same time). Roasting meat would have been a great challenge in that kitchen. Fortunately, most free markets had at least one cooked meat seller with a selection of roasted ducks, chickens, char siu and, if you were lucky, rabbit. Some of my best home cooked meals in China would start with a few slices of these roasted meats.
The tradition way of cooking char siu is to marinate strips of pork. The pork is then skewered on a fork and hung vertically in a Chinese oven. The meat is basted frequently to give it a sticky, glossy coat. Since I do not own a Chinese oven, I will make do with my barbecue.
Note: A traditional Chinese oven has thick walls and is open at the top. It has a hole in the bottom to take a formed brick of coal. You light the coal and once the oven is hot, you can bake breads, roast meat and burn yourself badly trying to get your food out of it. It takes special skill to operate one of these and you do not use it to roast just one piece of meat. There is no on off switch and temperature is controlled by how much you cover the top with the lid.
I read the label of the commonly available char siu sauce: sugar, salt, honey, and maltose were the first four ingredients. Many of the recipes I found on-line also contained a lot of added sugar and salt. The writers do not seem to know that many of the prepared sauces they are using to make their own sauce already contain a lot of both.
The authentic recipes all called for using maltose as a key ingredient. This is a sugar produced by malting rice. How can I describe maltose? At room temperature, it has the consistency of fresh caramel with a quarter of the sweetness and ten times the “stickiness.”
Honey and maltose were the original sweeteners used in char siu and I don’t think it really needs any more. Like with my keto hoisin sauce, I decided to strip the recipe down to its basic ingredients. Some honey would be necessary, but I would add not white or brown sugar. I want to make char siu, not meat candy.
Note: Many on-line recipes call for using hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce is just chili bean sauce with added Chinese five spice, lots of sugar, and a starch thickener (usually sweet potato, but it could also be wheat or rice starch).
Many char siu recipes call for red food coloring. This is a substitution for the red fermented bean curd in the authentic recipes. I live in a heavily Asian area and even I had to go to two Asian markets to find this ingredient. This is tofu fermented in red yeast and flour. Some authentic recipes call for using just the bright red brine. Other recipes called for mashing up some of the bean curd.
After Dinner Note: This recipe makes enough for this meal and plenty left over to be used as an ingredient in a recipe that calls for char siu. My char siu sauce was very good. This tasted like char siu I had in China, however the short cooking time—about 30 minutes total before it reached an internal temperature of 145° F—did not give the fat much time to render. The meat was moist and tender, but rather greasy. The barbecue I am using is low and I think the lack of air circulation around the hanging meat in the deep traditional oven may be part of the difference. When I make this again, I will not just cut the meat into even chunks like I did this time. I will separate the pork along the muscle lines and remove the excess lumps of fat.
Karl’s Char Siu (Chinese Barbecued Pork)
Char Siu Marinade
2 cubes of red fermented bean curd
1 Tbs. red fermented bean curd brine
½ cup dark soy sauce
2 Tbs. chili bean sauce (or chili black bean sauce)
2 Tbs. maltos
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. shao xing rice wine
1 Tbs. ginger, finely grated
3 clove garlic, finely grated
2 tsp. Chinese five spice powder
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. black vinegar
3-4 lb. pork shoulder, boneless
1. Put the bean curd and brine in a small pot and mash the bean curd into a paste.
2. Add the rest of the marinade ingredients and, stirring, bring the sauce to just a boil.
3. Remove the sauce from the heat and cool.
4. Slice the pork shoulder into 1½ inch by 1 inch strips (with the grain running the long way).
Tip: When you serve the char siu, you will slice off cuts across the grain.
5. Put three quarters of the sauce into a gallon plastic bag with the pork strips.
6. Mix the meat and marinade well and refrigerate for at least six hours, but overnight is preferable.
7. An hour before barbecuing, remove the meat from the refrigerator and wipe most of the marinade from the pork. Let the meat air dry and warm up to room temperature.
Tip: Discard the remaining marinade, unless you wish to go to the effort of cooking it and then filtering out the clotted meat juices.
8. Start the coals a half hour before barbecuing.
9. Push the coals to the back of the barbecue and set a pan of water in the empty space at the front of the barbecue.
Tip: Put about 2 cups of water in the pan. This acts as a heat sink and reduces the temperature inside the barbecue as much as 30 degrees. This slows down the cooking, but also prevents the pork from squeezing out its moisture.
10. Place the pork strips directly over the coals to sear the meat, about two minutes per side.
11. Transfer the pork to the cool side of the grill and brush with the reserved marinade.
12. Insert a constant read thermometer into the thickest pork strip and close the lid of the barbecue.
Tip: Put the thickest pork strips closes to the coals and any thinner strips farther from the heat.
13. Every ten minutes rotate the meat and baste the strips.
14. When the internal temperature reaches 145° F.
Tip: This takes between 20-30 minutes, depending on the heat of your barbecue.
15. Transfer the char siu to a serving platter and give the meat one last brush of marinade.
Tip: Tent with foil to keep the meat warm.
16. Slice the char siu across the grain into bite sized pieces and serve.