Char siu–Cantonese style roast pork–is a classic staple of the southern Chinese kitchen.
But it is a staple that is not often made at home.
Most Chinese home kitchens lacked (and as I understand it, still lack) an oven because ovens require a great deal of fuel to heat properly. So, instead of everyone in a village having an oven, there would be one family who operated an oven, and they specialized in cooking and selling roasted meats: primarily pork and duck.
While most Chinese-American families have ovens, if you go to any North American city where there is a Chinatown, you will notice small shops with whole, red-glazed, deliciously browned ducks hanging from hooks in the windows, alongside brilliantly-hued slabs and strips of crispy-browned char siu. In San Francisco’s Chinatown (a veritable paradise on earth, as far as Zak andI were concerned, especially when it came to food) it seemed as if there was a little roast shop around every corner, or down the twisting alleyways, and in my memory, the enticing fragrance of spiced, glazed meats wafted over every inch of Chinatown.
Even US cities that lack a Chinatown often have one or two restaurants, Chinese groceries or small take out shops that carry roasted meats. Columbus has both CAM–Columbus Asian Market, and Hometown Oriental Gourmet Food, both in the same strip-mall area on Bethel Road. When we lived in Pataskala, which is but a forty minute drive from downtown Columbus, we used to stop in at Hometown Oriental Gourmet Food, visit with the gregarious owners, and sit down to Zak’s favorite meal: roast pork noodle soup, which is good ramen noodles topped with meaty slices of char siu and graceful green tendrils of choy sum, then drowned in liquid gold: rich homemade chicken-pork broth. Actually, Zak usually got the soup, and I got either Singapore rice noodles or king du noodles, which was their take on ja ziang mein. He never finished the broth, so I always got the last cup or so of it: redolent of chicken and pork neck bones, slightly sweet from the char siu’s glaze, and speckled with the house-made chili oil Zak always added to it.
Heaven in a bowl.
We always stopped in there before we headed across the parking lot to CAM, because going to a big Asian supermarket hungry is a bad proposition for the wallet, besides being an exercise in frustration. Before we paid the bill, though, Peter or one of his sisters would ask if we wanted some char siu to take home, and we usually had a pound or two wrapped, and we would stow it in our freezer, in half-pound portions. That way, if I wanted a quick supper, I could thaw out a package, slice it thinly against the grain, and stir fry it with some choi sum, baby bok choy or gai lan. If any was left over, I could cut it more finely and put it into fried rice the next day, with fresh greens, some carrots and maybe some water chestnuts, if CAM had them fresh.
Or, if it was a special holiday, like a birthday or New Year’s, I could make char siu bao–steamed roast pork buns–a perennial favorite among our family and friends.
However, now that we are in Athens, we are not so lucky.
There is no roast pork to be had here.
I suppose that I could ask around at some of the Chinese restaurants and see if they would sell me some, and in truth, they probably would, but I don’t always think about it before I want it.
Which means that I just have to haul off and make it myself.
And, wonder of wonders, while it isn’t any more convenient to do so, the results are quite good, and in many ways, even tastier than what I was getting in Columbus, probably because of the quality of the pork I start out with.
Traditionally, the meat for char siu has to be fairly fatty, because the meat is cut in fairly small hunks or strips (when I say fairly small, I am not talking bite sized–what I mean is that you will not see whole butt or shoulder portions roasting for char siu ) that are hung from hooks so that the very hot air from the oven can touch every part of the meat, crisping the outside and caramelizing the sugary marinade. It is basted several times, allowing a crunchy coating to build up as it cooks, mingling with the ample fat that melts, keeping the meat moist during this very dry cooking method. Leaner cuts of pork would simply shrivel up into unappealing chunks of honey-dipped shoe leather.
For my char sui, I always use pork shoulder from Bluescreek’s organically raised, free range Yorkshire hogs. They have a slightly sweeter flavor than the stronger flavored Durocs that are raised here in Athens–those I prefer for making Mexican carnitas, or for use in posole, chili or pot roasts and stews where there will be plenty of moisture, and bolder spices and flavorings. The pork from Bluescreek, however, is very finely grained, firm, and delicately flavored, with plenty of fat, which makes it perfect for most Asian cooking applications, particularly when it comes to anything Cantonese.
In the past, I have rigged up my oven with a rack placed up high and used “S” hooks from the hardware store to hang meat from holes skewered in the edges, with pan down below to catch drippings, in order to recreate the way in which char siu is cooked in commercial Chinese establishments. And the results are fantastic, but the trouble is only worth it if one is doing a large amount of meat at a time. Which is an admirable way to go about it–make up three to five pounds of it, portion it out and then freeze it for use later.
However, I wasn’t about to go through that riagmarole this weekend just so I could make ten steamed pork buns for Morganna’s birthday party. Instead, I utilized my quick and dirty method to make char siu that ended up with just as tasty a product in a smaller amount, with a lot less trouble.
It involves putting the meat on a roasting rack in a shallow pan or on a rimmed cookie sheet, and roasting it that way. The underside doesn’t get as crispy as it does when it hangs, but it still gets quite caramelized and flavorful, and the result, once it is tucked into a puffy, cloud-like steamed bun with a bit of sauce, is just as wonderful as pork done the traditional way. I also discovered that it turns out really nice pork for lo mein, which is a great quick supper for the first weeknight after a weekend of frenzied kitchen activity.
All you have to do is make the marinade, let the meat steep in it overnight, roast it in a hot oven, and then let it cool before cutting into it. If you cut it up while it is still hot, all of that juicy goodness that the extra fat imparts is lost, and then you end up with sawdust meat coated with sugar, which is not very appetizing, especially after you went to the trouble of cooking it.
One final note: you have no doubt seen that my roast pork is not red on the outside. Traditionally, the red coloring came from the use of saltpeter–sodium nitrate–which preserves the meat and keeps the reddish color of it. (Nitrates are what keep bacon red. Without them, the meat turns an ugly grey color–which is still good to eat, mind you–it is just not appealing.) Most places that make char sui now use red food dye in their marinades to give the meat its characteristic cerise hue, which connotes good fortune and luck. I choose to not use the dye myself, preferring to let the meat take on a more natural golden brown color that I find to be just as appealing and a lot less worrisome than some sort of artificial food coloring. If you want the red color, add liquid food coloring until the marinade is the color you would like–because of the dark ingredients in the marinade, it takes a good bit of the red dye to color it properly, which is why I don’t use it.
Even without the coloring, the marinade is so flavorful and good, I don’t miss the color at all.
The inspriation for this marinade and method came from Eileen Yin-Fei Lo and Barbara Tropp’s recipes; as is usual, I tweaked it here and there, and added more of this and less of that, until it suited me, so now it is a bit different than either of the original recipes it came from.
2 ¼ pounds moderately fatty pork shoulder or butt
1 ½ tbsp. dark soy sauce
1 ½ tbsp. light soy sauce
1 ½ tbsp. honey
1 ½ tbsp. oyster sauce
2 tbsp. shao Hsing wine
3 ½ tbsp. hoisin sauce
½ tsp. five spice powder (I like Penzey’s brand)
black pepper to taste
red food coloring (optional)
Cut meat into strips 1 inch thick and seven inches long. Using a fork, tenderize meat by piercing all over. This also allows the sauce to penetrate.
Mix marinade ingredients into a ziplock bag large enough to hold meat.
Place meat in bag, mush it all around in the marinade so it is all covered, then push out all of the air, seal bag and leave it in the refrigerator for several hours, overnight or for twenty four hours.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place roasting rack on rimmed cookie sheet, and drape meat over it. Roast for 20 minutes, until the meat is done. Baste the meat as it cooks a couple of times with some of the marinade. Allow to cool after it is done, then cover and refrigerate until needed.
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