#NoCharSiuNoLife: An Ode To Cantonese Barbecued Pork
For Ivan Pavlov’s dogs, it’s the ringing of a bell that makes them salivate. For me, it’s the angry, high-pitched squeal of a smoke detector going off.
What should have been a life-threatening warning was to me, a signal that one of my favourite dishes was almost ready to be eaten.
When my mother, like many first-generation immigrants, had trouble finding foods from her childhood in her adopted home of Australia, she took on the task of making them herself. One of these was char siu—Cantonese-style barbecued pork, marinated in a lightly spiced paste, roasted to perfection and beautifully glazed with maltose (or honey, but that’s a debate for later).
It’s that last step, the glazing, that triggers that smoke detector. With oven door ajar, my mother precariously reaches into the Western-style oven—meant for tame, quiet bakes, like casseroles and sponge cakes—to slather maltose all over the reddish slab of pork collar, while caramel-laced gas billows into the kitchen.
The char siu is ready when the detector stops its urgent screeching, the cover smashing onto the kitchen floor, dislodged unceremoniously with the end of a broomstick. All of a sudden, the house is silent but for the clanging of metal tools—the baking tray sliding out of the oven, tongs landing on the baking rack. This would be my cue to enter the kitchen, and there it would be, sitting on the counter, glistening, plump and a little charred on the edges, a delicious and hard-earned specimen of porcine perfection.
Back in Hong Kong, eating char siu is a much simpler affair. One only need to step into a Cantonese restaurant—pretty much any Cantonese restaurant—and you’ll find a version of it. Some are better than others, which in itself is a topic in the same league as such culinary debates as one’s preferred coffee joint in Melbourne, the finest pho in Hanoi, or the best deep dish pizza in Chicago.
But it’s not just large restaurants—your local cha chaan teng will likely offer char siu as a topping for instant noodles, at fast food joints, it comes in a lunchbox and, let’s not forget the classic mom-and-pop stands around the city, the OG char siu purveyors, with their mouthwatering wares hanging in shop windows.
The idea of roasting meat over an open flame is universal across cultures, and many believe that humans evolved to enjoy the flavours of browned foods (ie. from the Maillard reaction) which creates umami, that highly craveworthy “fifth taste”. Evolution is also seen as the reason for which we love sugar and fat as much as we do, so with this triumvirate of delectability, it’s little surprise that we can’t escape the pleasures of char siu.
Evolution is also seen as the reason for which we love sugar and fat as much as we do, so with this triumvirate of delectability, it’s little surprise that we can’t escape the pleasures of char siu
The siu laap chef is a master of meat. Apart from the requisite roast meats such as char siu, siu yuk (crispy-skinned roast pork), roast liver, and roast goose, they’re also trained to make chicken (poached in soy sauce, and steamed “white” chicken), as well as preserved meats, such as laap yuk (air-dried pork belly), laap cheung (preserved sausages), yun cheung (preserved liver sausages) and so on. While preserved meats are less commonly associated with siu laap these days, it turns out that sausages provide a vital link to the origins of char siu.
It’s said that sausage-making technology was first introduced to the Chinese in the Tang Dynasty, by Arab and Persian people. Annals from the Tang Dynasty mention Arab visitors as early at the year 713. From there, the idea of preserving and marinating meats caught on, which led to laap cheung, and as the story goes, char siu.
Interestingly, commercial ovens used for char siu today, called tai hoong lo (“space ovens” for their spaceship-like stainless steel construction), are barrel-shaped and accessed from the top, just like Persian taftoons, Central Asian tandyrs and Indian tandoors. Pieces of pork (usually the collar, which has good marbling) are marinated, skewered and lowered into the oven, roasted once until almost cooked, then dipped in a sugary glaze, and returned to the oven once more for the final caramelisation.
Every chef has their own version of a char siu marinade, but it usually consists of a soybean paste base, spring onion (or other alliums like shallot or garlic), five spice or warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves and star anise, soy sauce, and Chinese rose wine. As far as I can tell, the glaze is traditionally maltose, a natural sugar derived from fermented grains, commonly used in Chinese cooking. However, in recent years, honey glazes have been trending—think Yellow Mountain Honey at Mott 32, or osmanthus honey at Tin Lung Heen. However, maltose’s thicker consistency means it really clings onto the meat, giving it that candied effect that is one of char siu’s raison d’etre, in my opinion.
Like many dishes, char siu is not immune to trends. In the 1960s, it was common to slice char siu more thinly, to compensate for tougher, lower quality meat. In the boom of the 1980s, people started to enjoy fattier pieces of pork. (In Cantonese communities outside Hong Kong, such as Malaysia, I’ve seen pork belly used too, but it didn’t seem to catch on here). In the 2000s, higher-end restaurants began differentiating themselves from siu laap shops by adding sauce to their char siu, and we’re also seeing an uptick in the use of specialty meats, such as Iberico or Kagoshima pork.
Like many dishes, char siu is not immune to trends. In the 1960s, it was common to slice char siu more thinly, to compensate for tougher, lower quality meat. In the boom of the 1980s, people started to enjoy fattier pieces of pork
Personally, I know that well-reared Chinese pork can taste as good as Iberico, and I like char siu in all its guises—the meat-candy-like slices at old favourites like Sun Kwai Heung in Chai Wan or Wing Hap Lung in Prince Edward; the juicy, saucy slabs most five-star hotels; even the offcuts stuffed into fluffy char siu bao and flaky char siu so, cooked with onions and gravy.
The only trend that I’d like to see in the future is the omission of meat tenderisers and red colouring. The pork we get nowadays has great marbling and texture, and a resplendent natural colour when roasted—why obscure it? If you want to taste char siu made that way, order it at Kin’s Kitchen, the only place I know that fits those criteria. Funnily enough, it may be the closest thing to a homemade char siu, except it shouldn’t be triggering any smoke detectors.