Char siu, or as we pesky gwailos call it - BBQ pork, would have to be one of the most addictive foods on the planet. This Cantonese delicacy of marinated and quick-roasted pork started life as hawker food - which is basically wholesome and tasty snacks that roadside vendors whipped up to feed hungry throngs that would pass by. Fortunately for us in the west, it has grown over time to be so much more.
The art of Cantonese BBQ has spread its wings and traveled across the globe. Chinese BBQ shops can be found in every major Chinatown in cities around the world. In Sydney alone we a have huge number, each vying for supremacy with the undisputed leader; BBQ King. These bustling, colourful and no-nonsense shops sell a bedazzling array of Cantonese barbecued meats; crisp-skinned and juicy suckling pig, mahogany-hued roast duck, succulent soy-cooked chicken, alarmingly orange cuttlefish, along with an intriguing line up of various innards that seem to only be popular with the Cantonese customers. And of course, there is also the fabulous char siu.
I was lucky enough to take my first bite of char siu at none-other than the legendary BBQ King itself. I was only young - taken along as a guest of my friend's parents - and for me it was a genuine revelation. A plain paper parcel was unceremoniously torn apart, revealing a pile of not-too-thick, yet not-too-thin slices of pork. Each slice had an alluringly bright red exterior and was succulently juicy in the middle. The real treat was the end slices, which had borne the most heat from the hot oven. They had caramelised and turned crispy - almost black in parts - and tasted sweet, crunchy, meaty… heavenly.
Char siu, and for that matter all Chinese BBQ meats are indisputably humble food. They should always be treated just like they are at home - as a snack or a light meal. Char siu will always be accompanied by rice and some Chinese green vegetables steamed simply with oyster sauce. A selection of dipping sauces will always be offered - ginger and shallot, hoi sin, or chilli.
Apart from the fact that buying char siu at a Cantonese BBQ shop is so cheap and easy, there is one other main factor that sets the store-bought variety above the home cooked version - the oven. Chinese BBQ ovens are barrel-shaped and cook with fiercely intense heat. The pork is ready in a matter of minutes and that trademark dark and crunchy exterior is effortlessly achieved. All this matters little however, because after years of searching, reading recipes and cajoling various chefs, I have arrived at the perfect home-cooked recipe - a recipe which holds 3 very important secrets.
Sweeter words I have seldom heard, and how true they were. My char siu improved immeasurably overnight, and as boneless pork neck can be between 25 and 50% cheaper than the other cuts, it is thriftier as well.
One of the greatest fans of char siu I have met also happens to be a level 9 noder right here on E2. The way he attacks a plate of char siu is genuinely disquieting - but at the same time makes you realise, this dude knows his pork. He states, unequivocally, that achan's recipe above is nigh enough to perfection. The fact that achan provides his Granddad's recipe makes me like it even more. That being the case, I won't be offended in the slightest if you try his recipe - but please make sure to use pork neck, a little dark soy sauce and the rack-over-tray filled with water method.
On the other hand, I will be pretty chuffed if you try my recipe as well. Lets get to it.
Lay the pork neck out on a chopping board. Cut lengthways into strips roughly 3 - 4 cm wide. You should end up with around 3 strips. Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl and add the pork. Toss well and place in the fridge to let the flavour really sink into the pork. 3 hours is an absolute minimum - overnight is much better.
When ready to cook, pre-heat your oven to 220 °C (440 °F). Select a deep-sided roasting tray and half fill it with water. Place in the oven for 20 minutes to warm it up. In the mean time, get ready a wire rack that sits snugly above the roasting tray. Make sure it will hold the pork well above the water level.
Remove the heated roasting tray from the oven and place the wire rack on top. Lift the pork out of the marinade, gently shaking away any excess and lay onto the wire rack. Make sure the pork slices are evenly spaced and not touching each other. Place in the oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pork and turn over. Brush liberally with the excess marinade and return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Take the pork out of the oven, and then set the oven to its highest temperature. Once again, turn the pork over and brush well with the marinade. Once the oven is fiercely cranking at its highest heat, return the pork for between 5 and 10 minutes. You want the char siu to get a dark, even patchily black exterior - but don't let it burn.
Take the pork out of the oven and cover with a sheet of aluminium foil. Allow it to sit at room temperature for at least half an hour. This resting stage will let all the moisture that moved to the centre of the meat during roasting to slowly seep back to the exterior - leaving it succulently juicy.
Chop the pork into 1 cm slices and serve with steamed rice and simply cooked greens.
¹Dark soy sauce is very different from regular or light soy sauce. For starters it is less salty, and as its name implies, it is much darker and thicker than the regular stuff. It should always be labeled as “dark soy sauce”, but if there is any doubt, here is a trick to ascertain the difference. Shake the bottle, and then look at the neck. If the soy sauce drains away and leaves the neck almost clear, it is light soy sauce. If the neck is darkly coated for some time after you shook the bottle – it is the dark stuff.