Traditional Cantonese style barbecue pork recipe (Char siu) made at home. Marinated and roasted to perfection with savory and sweet Chinese spices and flavors.
One of my favorite Chinese dishes growing up was 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 magic of this recipe is in the pungent marinade that infuses its lovely flavor onto the surface of the pork, giving a unique ruby color. I want to share with you this traditional Cantonese char siu recipe so you can recreate this delicious dish right at home!
Key Elements to Make Char Siu
- Flavorful Ingredients: The flavors are a mixture of intensely concentrated sauces like fermented black beans, soy, hoisin and sesame paste. The aromatic blend of Chinese five-spice adds a kick of pungent flavor and sweet aroma, complimenting the umami taste of the sauces. Sugar is used to balance the saltiness of the marinade, and Chinese sherry called Shaoxing helps to infuse into the pork.
- Cut: 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’ve had in restaurants. Cut the pork into long thin strips, so it has more surface area for the marinade to infuse on the surface.
- Marinate: To achieve maximum flavor and color, I marinate the pork at least 1 hour to overnight ensuring both sides are coated evenly. Some people use red food coloring to enhance the color. I like a more natural color and have found that the honey sesame glaze added on during roasting deepens and adds shine to the pork.
This char siu can be made pretty quickly because with lean meat can you roast at high temperatures in the oven. Towards the end of cooking, a delicious honey, mirin, and sesame oil mixture gets brushed on the roasted pork. The glaze helps to enhance the dark red color that is absorbed by the meat from the marinade and gives a nice sweet coating.
The sliced char siu is just the right natural color and texture you would expect when you dine at a nice Chinese restaurant. The tender pork will get devoured in an instant! If you have leftovers, you can add it to wonton soup. Roast some extra meat so can try it in my steamed pork bun recipe also called Char Siu Bao.
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 green beans and serve with some steamed rice. What is your favorite Chinese dish to make at home?
How is the dark color achieved on the surface of the Char Siu?
The color on the face of the Char siu once roasted is attributed to two steps during the preparation and cooking of the meat; marination and Maillard browning. Marinades typically contain acid, sugar, salt, which all help to denature some of the surface proteins to make it easier for the flavors to infuse into the meat, as well as making it more tender. If marinating for a short period, the surface benefits from marination, but not the center of the meat. 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.