Take a stroll through any Chinatown in the world and you’re bound to see restaurants with strips of red char siu hanging from hooks in the windows. Char siu literally means “fork burned” which is a reference to the traditional preparation, skewered and barbecued over a fire. While you may not have had a chance to try it over rice or in noodle soup, you’ve probably had it chopped up in pork buns (char siu bao) at one point or other.
At its best, char siu is moist and flavorful on the inside and caramelized and slightly chewy on the outside, with a sweet aroma redolent of five-spice and garlic. Unfortunately, at many establishments (in the NY Chinatown), it’s overly sweet, grisly, artificially colored meat that’s been hanging under a heatlamp for hours.
In an effort to right the injustice done to this dish at many places, I set out to make my own Char Siu at home. Not some vaguely char-siu-like impostor, but a moist flavorful hunk of meat with the trademark deep mahogany color. I also wanted to do it without the addition of any weird additives like food coloring, msg, or ketchup.
I started by making my own 5 spice powder last week. Then I let my first batch marinate for 3 days and did a 2 temperature roast with the skin still on. This was a good start, but despite the very long soak, it wasn’t as well seasoned as I would have liked and the glaze wasn’t quite sweet enough. The skin also started burning before it has a chance to crisp, so I decided it needed a second pass before I posted. I fixed it on the second attempt by removing the skin, adding more soy sauce and maltose and roasting at a lower temperature before raising the temperature to char the edges.
Here are a few notes/tips on the ingredients:
- For the pork belly, try to get pork belly that’s leaner that what you’d get for braising. Ideally you’ll have thick layers of very marbled meat with thin strips of fat in between. You could also use pork shoulder, but I prefer pork belly for the extra fat content. Whatever you do, please don’t make this a pork loin (you’ll end up with pork jerky).
- Shaoxing is a dark brown cooking wine you can pick up in most asian groceries, but if you can’t find it, sherry makes a pretty good substitute.
- I’ll admit that Thai chili sauce isn’t exactly authentic, but I like the mild sweet garlicky heat it provides.
- Chinese dark soy sauce is actually a key component (I used Pearl River Bridge brand). It is much darker than the more common Japanese dark soy sauce and is more viscous. I’m fairly certain that this is were the red color comes from, so it’s probably not a good idea to substitute in something else if you can find it.
- Maltose is a malt sugar that’s made from barley. It is extremely viscous and sticky with a smooth texture like very cold honey. It’s not as sweet as honey, but because of its viscosity it helps make the marinade stick to the pork and imparts a malty flavour. You can usually find it in asian groceries, and I love just sticking a clean chopstick into the jar, twirling it around until I have a little lollipop of maltose and sucking on it.
- Mix the ingredients for the marinade together in a Ziploc bag. The maltose is a little tough to incorporate but it's okay if there are some lumps as these will eventually dissolve, just make sure there are no big clumps.
- If your pork belly has skin, use a sharp knife to remove it. Add the pork belly to the marinade and push out as much air as possible so the meat is completely surrounded by marinade. Let it sit in the fridge for at least 2 days, flipping the bag over every to ensure it's evenly marinated.
- To roast your char siu, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F and move the rack to the upper middle position. Set an elevated wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and lay the marinated pork belly on the rack, saving the marinade for later. Put the pan in the oven and let it roast for 1 hour or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. Remove the pan from the oven, then move the oven rack to the top position and turn the heat up to "broil".
- Baste the pork with the reserved marinade, then broil it until dark and glossy with the edges just slightly charred. Flip the meat over and baste again, allowing the second side to color and char as well.
- Slice your finished char siu and serve with rice or noodles.