I think almost every child likes charsiu (also spelled “char siew”), aka Chinese barbecued pork. There’s something wonderfully delicious about the combination of juicy, tender pork and the salty-sweet and very umami charsiu sauce. It’s something that my own kids, especially my son, absolutely loves. It’s highly addictive when done right. And I add that caveat because there are just as many horrendous, dry versions of charsiu sold in hawker centres all over the island as there are wonderfully plump, tasty and moist versions. The absolutely worst ones feel like cardboard, have artificially colored pink exteriors and unappetising grey flesh. I feel sorry for any person whose first taste of charsiu was one of these substandard and frankly embarrassing versions.
A well-made piece of charsiu is a thing of beauty. The pork should have flavour. It should be moist and have a little bite (meaning, it shouldn’t be too tender). I’ve played with a wide variety of charsiu preparation and cooking methods over the years. For a significant period, my preference was to use sous-vide techniques in the process. But more recently, and mostly because I was never 100% satisfied with the texture of the sous-vide charsiu, I’ve gone back to more basic styles of cooking.
Several foodies (online) have advocated a braising method in which you cook your pork in a wok, allowing the liquid it is cooking in to reduce until it finally becomes a sticky caramelised coating for the meat. I tried out a few online recipes but didn’t like the results. Not only did the meat come out overly sticky (which made it a mess to handle) but cleaning pots and woks in which you’ve reduced caramelised sauces is a real bitch.
But I liked the idea of braising the meat. Especially when you can add aromatics to make the liquid and the meat that much yummier. So, I tried braising the pork, letting it cool in the braising liquid, and then basting it in charsiu sauce, followed by a short but super hot turn in the oven. After a few iterations, I think I’ve come up with something that works well. Based on the family’s reactions, it appears to be a winner with kids and grandparents alike. I’ve found that the braising time greatly effects the texture of the meat. The best charsiu should have some bite. So if you braise the meat too long, while the pork can come out nice and tender, it will also fall apart… which isn’t particularly what you want. An hour seems to be sufficient to cook the pork nicely and still provide some nice resistence when you cut it as well as when you bite into it.
I’ve also taken to making my own charsiu sauce. I tend to avoid both commercial charsiu and Hoisin sauces these days and instead prefer to whip up my own concoction (which is admittedly very adjusted to my specific palate). Of course, it helps that I have a very well stocked pantry, courtesy of the superwife. That means if I want to use fermented soy beans I have multiple options to choose from. I make my sauce and use it as marinade and in the cooking process, and then use it again, with honey added, for the final roast.
The recipe is below. While this takes considerably less time than other charsiu recipes I’ve posted previously, it is by no means a quick dish to make. You’ll want to block off a few hours for this the first time you make it. And, since we all have different tastes, as always you should adjust the seasoning and ratio of the various ingredients for your own tastes.
2kg of fatty pork neck, cut into strips, approximately 4cm wide, 4-5cm tall, and 20cm long.
2 leeks, trimmed and cut into rough chunks
2 onions, quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into rough chunks
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 2cm knob of ginger peeled
1 bunch fresh coriander (a few sprigs)
1 bunch fresh spring onions (a few sprigs)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
For the marinade
1/2 cup of Chinese red yeast rice wine lees (paste)
4 tablespoons creamy/smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons fermented soybeans, mashed up
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark thick soy sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons scallion oil (if you have it)
1 tablespoon five spice powder
1 to 1.5 litres chicken stock or dashi
1/3 cup of honey
In a big jar, mix all of the marinade ingredients together. Taste. It should be very punchy and sweet and salty. If you think it needs more sugar, add some; more salt, add soy sauce or salt.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the pork pieces and half of the marinade together. Let sit for around 30 minutes.
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
Heat up a large pot over medium-high heat. Add in 2 tablespoons of cooking oil. Once hot, add in the onions, leek and carrot. Stir for 5 minutes or so, just until the onion is beginning to soften. Then stir in the garlic and ginger. Transfer the pork with the marinade into the pot, add in the coriander and spring onion, and stir all the ingredients around for a few minutes. Then pour the stock/dashi over the meat. You just want to cover all of the meat under liquid. Taste the braising liquid and adjust the seasoning again if need be. Bring the liquid to a boil and cover with a cartouche made from baking paper. Place the lid over the pot and put it inside the oven for 1 hour.
After an hour, take the pot out, remove the lid and let the pork cool in the liquid. Once cool, you can remove the pork and place it on a wire rack, that you’ve set up on a large tray.
Mix the remaining marinade with 1/3 cup of honey. That should give you just enough for the basting process. If you feel like you need more, make another batch of marinade and mix it with 2/3 cup of honey.
Reset your oven so that it is at the highest possible temperature. You may also want to consider a grill or broil option. The oven I use has a grill + fan option, which is what I use. Baste the meat completely. You want to try and cover every single bit of the pork. Then pop it in the oven for 10 minutes. If you are using a unidirectional heat setting (like I do), after 5 minutes, take the pork out, flip the meat over, baste again if necessary, and pop it back in for the last 5 minutes. You want the pork to take on that signature charred glossiness that the best charsiu have.
Once done, cut, eat, enjoy.
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