Barbecue has lots of American connotation — to me, anyway. For the rest of the world, however, slow-cooked meats are very much a local thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of both Korean barbecue and Chinese bbq pork. They’re just not the first thing that springs to mind.
Part of expanding my horizons as a chef involves becoming more familiar with more dishes and styles of cooking from many different cultures. As a result, I went on a journey a few months ago to become more intimately familiar with this traditional Chinese style of barbecue. This meant that I cooked Asian bbq pork at least once a week for the whole summer. I learned a lot about how Chinese barbecue differs from its American counterpart. This gave me lots of insight into how I can modify my favorite recipes to bring the best parts of char siu to my more Western cooking.
What Is Char Siu?
Char siu is a Chinese dish made from seasoned boneless pork. The pork is covered in a sweet, savory glaze and placed on wooden skewers or forks over low heat. It’s cooked until it’s tender and delicious.
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For me, there are two things that make char siu (sometimes called “cha siu“) different from other forms of barbecue. First, the use of skewers changes how the meat cooks. Normally, meat sits on top of a solid object or baking rack. While a rack might elevate a roast from its juices somewhat, there’s still a lot of moist, steamy heat coming off of your drip tray. Not so with char siu. Instead, the meat heats slowly and evenly from all sides.
Second, the marinade used on char siu is distinctive and delicious. It’s one of my favorite things to put on just about any kind of meat these days, especially when I’m slow cooking it. We’ll go over how to make char siu marinade a little bit farther down.
What Cut Is Char Siu Made From?
When people talk about Chinese pork tenderloin, they’re usually referring to char siu. Nevertheless, char siu is made from many cuts of pork. This can include neck meat, pork belly, pork butt, and just about any boneless section of any other cut of pork. It’s best made with leaner cuts, however, making tenderloin char siu the best kind (in my opinion).
Why Is Char Siu Shiny?
In order to make char siu more shiny and attractive, chefs often add an ingredient called maltose to the marinade and glaze. Maltose is a byproduct of starch that’s referred to as “malt sugar.” While not quite as sweet as regular sugar, it’s been used in Chinese cooking for well over three thousand years.
History of Char Siu
Char siu has been around for many, many years. Historians think that it wasn’t always a pork dish. Instead, Chinese cooks would use the traditional char siu marinade on just about any type of meat and then slow cook the meat on long skewers. Char siu used to be roast over a fire. These days, however, it’s often cooked on an oven or over an outdoor grill.
Serving Char Siu
Char siu is usually served with rice or inside of a dumpling, called cha siu bao. We’ll go over a quick cha siu bao recipe later so that you can try out both styles of char siu at home. Chinese shops often sell char siu to-go so that people can take it home and mix it with rice and other ingredients. It’s used as a base for many Chinese dinners with lots of fun mix-ins.
Different countries have different traditions for serving and enjoying char siu. In Hawaii, for example, char siu is not the name of a specific dish but rather the name for the marinading and cooking process in general. You can buy char siu beef, chicken, and other meats in Hawaii. These meats have been prepared with the same glaze and cooking style as pork char siu. It’s usually served over rice, but you can also find it in other styles.
Other countries have different styles still. In Japan, char siu is braised instead of being roasted of grilled. It’s commonly found in ramen. Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore all practice a more traditional style of Chinese char siu, serving it alongside rice, cucumbers, and plenty of dark sauce.
How To Make Char Siu – Chinese Barbecue Pork Recipe
The most important (and time-consuming) part of making char siu is getting the marinade just right. Here’s my personal favorite recipe. Feel free to adapt the proportions of the seasonings to fit your personal tastes.
Char Siu Marinade:
1/2 cup honey (or maltose, if you’re trying to be authentic)
2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (called Shaoxing or Shao Hsing, but you can use any dry sherry if you’d like)
4 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp 5 spice powder
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced, pressed or blended
1. Over low heat, combine honey, wine (or sherry), hoisin sauce, spice powder, soy sauce, and about half a cup of water in a saucepan. Gently stir until the honey is well mixed. Increase heat to medium and bring the mixture to a boil.
2. Add garlic and simmer until the mixture reduces to a thick syrup, about 10 minutes. Once you’ve reached the proper consistency, remove from heat and add sesame oil. Let the marinade cool completely before you proceed.
If you’re not ready to make char siu immediately, you can simply store this sauce in the fridge in a covered container for a few days. I love using it as a marinade for pretty much every meat I can think of, including chicken, beef, and turkey.
Char Siu Barbecue Pork
Once you’ve got your marinade all ready, it’s time to cook the pork itself! Here’s how:
1 cup char siu marinade (see recipe above)
3 lbs boneless pork, cut into strips
1. Marinate pork strips in about half of the marinade you made overnight. I generally do this in ziplock bags with as much air as possible removed. If you’re in a hurry, you can marinade the pork for as little as 4 hours or as many as 24. I find that 12 to 18 hours of marinating gives me the right mix of flavor and texture for my tastes.
2. When you’re ready to cook, preheat your oven to 375 F. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil and use it to catch drips.
3. Place the pork in the oven (see notes below) and cook for 25 to 30 minutes.
4. Remove the hot pork from your oven and cover it in the remaining marinade. Be sure to get both sides with plenty of sauce in order to give it a nice, even glaze. Put the pork back in the oven for 15 minutes or until it’s quite tender.
5. Let the char siu rest for about ten minutes before you serve it. This will cool it down (so it’s easier to serve and eat) and complete the cooking process, giving you incredibly tender, delicious pork.
Putting Char Siu In Your Oven
For me, one big distinctive feature of char siu is how it’s cooked. In my opinion, if you’re not cooking char siu on skewers, you’re doing it wrong.
The way I like to do things is simple: I put soaked wooden skewers through my pork strips and I use a deep baking tray to cook the pork. The skewers naturally suspend the meat above the baking tray with plenty of room to ensure that the meat is cooked evenly from all sides. There’s virtually no cleanup, too, since I can just throw away the foil.
If you’re not up for this, of course, you can just put a rack down on top of your baking tray and put the pork on the rack instead. There’s a small difference in how the bottom half of the pork turns out, but it’s not a big deal for most people. Unless you’re doing side-by-side comparisons you probably won’t notice any differences.
Of course, people who are more familiar with how traditional char siu is made and served might look for a skewer hole. If this happens, the best thing to do is confess that you used a shortcut. As long as your char siu is delicious (and it will be), everything will be forgiven.
Is Char Siu The Same As Cha Siu Bao?
“Bao” is Chinese for “dumpling.” Cha siu bao is a specific type of pork-filled steamed dumpling that has char siu inside of it. In other words, char siu is to cha siu bao as bologna is to a bologna sandwich. Char siu can be enjoyed on its own outside of these dumplings, so it’s worth talking about separately.
If you can make char siu, you can make cha siu bao without too much extra work. Simply make char siu, slice it into small pieces, place it into dumplings, and steam them! Here’s a quick recipe for homemade cha siu bao.
1 lb char siu, cut into small cubes (see above. Feel free to use leftovers!)
6 cups flour, all-purpose
about 1 3/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp yeast
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp shortening (or butter or lard)
To thicken filling:
1.5 tbsp sugar
1.5 tbsp soy sauce
1.5 tbsp oyster sauce
1 cup water
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp shortening (or lard or butter)
1.5 tsp sesame oil
ground pepper, to taste
1. Prepare char siu as directed above. Enjoy all but 1 cup, then cut the remaining pork into small cubes.
2. Activate the yeast by mixing the sugar and warm water in a bowl, stirring well, then add the yeast. Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes or until it’s quite frothy.
3. In a separate bowl, sift flour and baking powder. Mix in the shortening (or butter or lard) and the activated yeast mixture.
4. Knead the dough until it’s fairly smooth and quite elastic. In a greased bowl, cover the kneaded dough loosely with cling film and let it sit on a warm countertop for two hours. It should rise to be about three times as big as it was before.
5. To make the filling sauce, mix the sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and water in a small saucepan. Boil over medium heat.
6. In a separate container (I use a teacup), mix cornstarch with about 2 tbsp of water, then add this mixture to the boiling filling sauce. Stir this together until it’s fairly thick, then mix in the fat.
7. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool. Stir in sesame oil and the cubed pork.
8. Take the risen dough to a floured work surface and knead again until it’s elastic and smooth. Roll it out with a pin and make about 20 pieces. Flatten each piece out into a thin circle that’s a bit thicker in the center (you can use your palm instead of a rolling pin for this, if you’d like). Scoop some pork filling into each circle, gather the edges at the top, and pinch together to form a round bun. Let the buns sit for ten minutes or so while you prepare your steamer.
9. Steam buns for about 12 minutes, or until the dumplings are cooked. Serve while hot.
What Is Hoisin Sauce?
One of the key ingredients that gives char siu it’s wonderful taste is hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce is easy to find in most supermarkets and is commonly used in many Asian dishes. It’s made from soybeans and lots of flavorings, including chilis, garlic, fennel, vinegar, sugar, and a mix of China’s 5 signature spices. Hoisin goes very well with most dishes and should definitely be in your pantry.
While hoisin sauce is most commonly used in China, it’s also found in Vietnamese dishes. Most Pho establishments will offer bottles of hoisin to use as a seasoning for their soups.
What About 5 Spice Blend?
Chinese five spice refers to a mixture of spices used commonly in Chinese cooking. It’s essentially the Chinese equivalent of garam masala — it’s a neat timesaver when most of the things you cook use a similar blend of spices anyway.
Each brand of 5 spice varies in terms of content. The general flavor profile includes fennel seeds, star anise, cloves, Sichuan pepper, and Chinese cinnamon. Unlike garam masala, it’s a fairly large pain to make 5-spice blend at home (for me, anyway), so you’re better off sticking with the pre-made stuff.
Just like hoisin sauce, while 5-spice is most prevalent in Chinese cooking, it’s also found in Vietnamese and Hawaiian dishes. It’s a neat blend of interesting flavors that you’ll find lots of uses for in the kitchen.
Char Siu – The Most Aesthetic Barbecue?
Whether you cook char siu on the oven, on an outdoor grill, or in a genuine slow cooker, the shiny red glaze gives it a wonderful, unique aesthetic that makes it look absolutely amazing. Due to the lack of bones, this Chinese barbecue dish is incredibly easy to enjoy. It’s nearly as easy to make, too, once you master the art of assembling a perfect char siu marinade. Be sure to save a bit of leftovers to make cha siu bao with afterward so you can enjoy your char siu two different ways.
Learning From Char Siu
I mentioned at the beginning of this that I learned a lot from char siu. For me, the biggest lesson was that I should be combining slow cooking with slow marinades. While I’m a big fan of dry rubs and the occasional brine, I hadn’t been giving my barbecue meats the acidic attention necessary to make them as juicy and tender as possible. This takeaway isn’t something I use every time I fire up the smoker, but it’s definitely something I keep in mind when I’m slow cooking. Whenever I have a chance, I try to barbecue my meat in a flavorful blend of salt, acid (like vinegar or cooking wine), and savory ingredients like soy sauce or hoisin sauce.
The other takeaway was a bit more subtle: I can do more with less. Char siu doesn’t have a lot of fancy ingredients or complicated steps. Instead, it pairs a delicious marinade with a lean cut of quality meat to make something that’s both accessible and appetizing. The hardest part of making char siu is probably mincing the garlic for the marinade, and I can do that in a few seconds with an immersion blender. Other than that, you’re just letting your ingredients do the work for you.
So give it a shot! Try making char siu today and see what you can learn. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to make delicious Chinese barbecue pork that’s incredibly tender and succulent. Your guests will love the look, the taste, and the texture of this Chinese dish.