Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork Recipe)
It’s incredibly hard to turn down a proper Char Siu (叉燒) / Cha Shao. For those of you who live in big metropolises with a China Town nearby, you have your pick of Char Siu – over rice, over ramen, in a sandwich, along side veggies, in a bun, stir-fried with rice, or even hanging up in a window. There are plenty, plenty of ways to enjoy or cook this little bit of heaven.
I am not saying this is the best Char Siu recipe outside China, but it can definitely hold it’s own and is deliciously Cantonese without a ton of salt. You don’t have to believe me. Make the recipe for yourself.
What I have learned over the years is that the majority of Char Siu recipes “seem” to have some type of hoisin, soy sauce, five-spice powder (not the good kind either), honey, garlic, ginger, rice wine-esk flavorings. Now reading and researching dozens of Char Siu (叉燒) recipes I have been able to rule out ingredients like ketchup, chicken stock / powder, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and citrus – these are just odd. It also does not seem to flow with the history of a Cantonese BBQ pork.
Char Siu Ingredients That Seem 100% Authentic
- Red yeast wine like Shaohsing for it’s unique salty taste and red coloring
- Maltose for the glaze (brown sugar will do)
- Soy sauce
- Fermented red bean curd (ding, ding, ding – key ingredient!)
- Star anise
I judge these based on what was “readily” available and affordable in old China and what would have been brought over during those earlier years in America. What would have been produced? I am also going off of dozens of recipes I found online, some of which were Chinese food bloggers. Also the taste/color largely comes from yeasty things like rice wine or fermented red bean curd.
How to Make Char Siu
- There should be soy sauce to some level. It was staple then and still is now.
- A sugary glaze made from brown sugar or maltose.
- Hoisin which is sweet potato and spices – a prolific crop in Asia. It adds a deep, robust sweetness.
- Fermented red bean curd has been made for many, many years. It has a natural red dye to it which is imparted into the pork with the help of the ethanol/wine that it sits in.
- Star anise or even some rose water extract
- Some sort of cooked off alcohol (e.g. Shao Shing), The salts help to break the proteins down which again concentrates the flavors.
- Pork butt (or shoulder) seems to be the consensus among cooks for the fat content. It makes it juicy and using just a tenderloin tends to dry out during the grilling or broiling. I’m a butt person myself. Hey now!
- No matter what, overnight in the marinade is mandatory. A couple hours won’t cut it.
I don’t mention food coloring or red dye 40 since that seems to be a more modern ingredient and something nobody needs. I am also convinced there is no place for ketchup, Japanese mirin, a ton of aromatics, sesame oil, oyster sauce, Chinese five-spice or meat stock. It seems way too much especially when pairing this recipe up with other ingredients / dishes.
Remember, I am making this char siu as close to authentic as possible. Without further ado…my #1 ABC Golden Happy Lucky Chinese BBQ Red Pork Recipe. If you can read that, then you can easily make this recipe.
- 2lb. of pork butt or shoulder cut into 1.5 inch thick slices / chunks
- 1 c. Shao Hsing wine
- 3/4 c. Tamari gluten-free light-soy
- 1/4 c. Hoisin (make sure it has sweet potato puree in it and not the cheap stuff)
- 1/3 c. fermented red bean curd (mostly the liquid)
- 1/2 c. dark sugar (with molasses)
- 3 minced garlic cloves
- 2 tbl. minced/zested ginger
- 4 crushed star anise pods
- Stir all ingredients together from above.
- Boil it for 1 minute and let cool to room temperature.
- Put the pork into the marinade overnight (around 12 hours).
- Turn the gas broiler on.
- Put the pork about 4 inches below the fire.
- Turn every 2 minutes for 10-15 minutes.
- Pull and rest the meat for a few minutes.
- Bring the heat up to 400ºF
- Grill 5 minutes on each side. Repeat.
- Remove from heat and rest for 3-4 minutes.
It should look exactly like the photo in this recipe. I did not edit the color of the photo in anyway.
This is based on you butchering the butt/shoulder with 2 inch thick pieces. I don't cook according to weight, I cook according the distance to the center of the meat.
I cut the pork along the grain in nice long 1.5 " thick x 4" long x 4" wide strips.
Why these ingredients?
- I use Shaoxing wine since it has a deep fermented, yeasty, rice flavor. It also has a nice salty and caramel flavor to it once you cook the alcohol off.
- Dark sugar has molasses which also adds this deep, sweet, kinda burnt cane flavor.
- Garlic and ginger are there to add a pungent, healthy zest to the marinade. Nothing more is needed. I tested scallions but they were buried under the other tastes.
- Hoisin adds a fantastic complex sweetness and starch to the marinade due to the sweet potato.
- The red bean curd adds color, salt and another nice dose of yeast to flavor the meat.
- Homemade Chinese 5-spice still seems to be a hit or miss. I omit it. I think that it is simply just too many flavors. I have Chinese recipes which are in both camps. I do add some crushed star anise pods though. That gives it a delicate licorice (don’t cringe) floral note.
Sure you can put plenty of “things” in your Char Siu recipe but I opted for a minimal approach. Something healthier while still keeping it authentically Cantonese and incredibly delicious and fragrant.
Please send me your comments from your own experience making this mouth watering BBQ red pork.