One of my favorite Chinese dishes growing up is savory and sweet roasted barbecue pork, affectionately called char siu in Cantonese.
During our weekend visits to Oakland’s Chinatown, I would always see these beautiful pieces of roasted meat hanging on display in restaurant windows. The flavors are a mixture of intensely concentrated sauces like fermented black bean, soy, hoisin and sesame paste.
The aromatic blend of Chinese five-spice adds a kick of pungent flavor and sweet aroma, complimenting the umami flavors of the sauces. Sugar is used to balance the saltiness of the marinade, and Chinese sherry called Shaoxing helps the flavors to merry together and infuse into the pork. I want to share with you this traditional Cantonese char siu recipe I learned during culinary school. I hope you enjoy!
To achieve maximum flavor and color, I marinate the pork overnight ensuring to coat both sides evenly in the marinade. I used pork tenderloin and shoulder for the char siu recipe. I have found that pork shoulder gives the best texture and flavor similar to what I have had in restaurants.
Roast the pork at high heat, and then brush towards the end of cooking with a honey, mirin, and sesame oil mixture. The glaze helps to enhance the dark red color that is absorbed by the meat from the marinade and gives a nice sweet coating to the pork.
The sliced char siu above from the pork shoulder cut is the perfect color and texture you would expect when you dine at a nice Chinese restaurant. Very beautiful & delicious!
The roasted pork is the star of this dish, so to complement it I like to stir fry some simple Chinese vegetables like bok choy or gailan and serve with some steamed white rice.
This Cantonese char siu recipe can also be used in Chinese steamed buns like char siu bao. If you decide to roast some extra meat you can try it in my steamed pork bun recipe also called Char Siu Bao.
TIP #1 – The beautiful deep red and caramelized color on the surface of the Char siu once roasted is attributed to two steps during the preparation and cooking of the meat; marination and Maillard browning.
TIP #2 – Marinades typically contain acid, sugar, salt, all which help to denature some of the surface proteins to make it easier for the flavors to infuse into the meat, as well as making the meat more tender. If marinating for a short period, the surface benefits from marination, but not the center of the meat. If the meat is denser like beef or pork, its best to cut thinner slices of meat for maximum flavor penetration. You can see in the picture above, given an entire day to marinate in the sauce, the surface of the meat has taken on the color and flavor of the marinade.
TIP #3 – Maillard browning is responsible for the prized golden brown colors achieved during cooking and baking. When proteins are denatured (structures are broken down) in the presence of heat, the protein recombines with the sugars naturally in food or in added in seasonings. At temperatures between 300° F to 500° F, a browning reaction slowly occurs, creating wonderful meaty flavors and caramel colored surfaces.