Friday, October 7, 2011

Cha Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)

Red tastes better.  Whether it's children fighting over the red M&Ms (they taste the same, people!), or the sad decline of Red Delicious apples, we almost can't help that our eyes are drawn to that rich, full color.  It's like this whole Red Velvet cupcake mania now--don't you all know that it's just chocolate flavor with red food coloring?!  Now, try to use this argument against cha siu, and it's a whole other story.  Is that hypocritical?  Of course!  But those of you who grew up eating cha siu know exactly what I'm talking about.

Translated, cha siu literally means "fork roasted," and you see this bbq pork in windows all over Chinatown, hanging from skewers, deliciously burned, and dripping with honeyed glaze and rendered fat.  Everyone knows it's just food coloring, but that brilliant red sums up all that nostalgia and lures you in for an impulse food-buy.

Digging through my old photos, I found one of a Chinese restaurant window and sadly the cha siu, hanging from the bottom rack, is cut off--upstaged by the glossy roast ducks.  Even with its bold color, cha siu can get out-shined, especially when accompanying it in the window is often a spectacular whole roasted pig, complete with a wide expanse of golden crispy skin.  In truth, I think I've taken cha siu for granted.  You don't reserve it for special occasions, the way you might a roast duck, and as a matter of fact, it always ended up in many everyday meals.  Growing up, we'd eat it with plain rice--fresh from the store, and still glistening with honey.  I would snatch up the crispy choice pieces, and days later, the leftovers would be in fried rice, in noodles, and it even--I recently experimented--tastes great on pizza.  We had it often, and it was delicious in every different dish it managed to sneak into.  

For me, cha siu is the epitomy of comfort food.  The odd part is that it's never occurred to me to cook it myself; it's always been one of those things I thought was best left to the experts.  But when I came across a recipe in Appetite for China, I had to at least try it.  In the end, I omitted the food coloring, being too lazy (and cheap) to justify the trip to the store for purely cosmetic reasons.  When this cha siu came out of the oven, I was pleased by its more natural rosiness, although when I took my first bite, I couldn't tell if it tasted the same as I remembered.  It simply didn't taste red, if that makes any sense... I know, it doesn't.  That didn't matter though, because it tasted like crispy honeyed perfection, with that rich earthiness of 5-spice layered beneath the sweetness.  More importantly though, and I suppose this is the magic of cha siu, is that even when I'm 3000 miles away, it tastes like a slice of home.

Cha siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)
Total Recipe Cost: $5.02 for 8 servings (2lbs)!  (Cha siu from the store is around $8/lb!)
Adapted from Appetite for China

While this isn't technically cooked in the traditional way, the bake 'n broil combo is an astonishingly easy alternative with exceptionally tasty results.  Since I'm not a BBQ master, a meat thermometer came in mighty handy for this recipe!  Nobody likes dried-out cha siu, so I aim to finish at an internal temperature of 145 degrees (newly approved by the USDA, who recently lowered the safe temperature from 160 degrees).  My times may vary from yours, depending on differences in size of the pork strips, so just be careful!

2 lbs pork butt (don't worry, it's actually the shoulder!)
4 tablespoons rice wine
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon 5-spice powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
few drops red food coloring (optional)
3 tablespoons honey

Cut the pork butt into strips, roughly 2 inches in diameter.  Trim off some of the fat, but don't go all health-crazy--it needs a little fat to keep it moist!  Mix together the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, hoisin sauce, 5-spice, and garlic for the marinade; add some food coloring here, if you want that extreme red glow.  Vigorously rub this into the meat, and marinate it in the refrigerator overnight (or at least a few hours).

Preheat the oven at 400 degrees.  Arrange the meat in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet (this will make your dishwasher infinitely happier!), discarding the marinade.  Bake for 15 minutes, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of about 130 degrees.  Flip the meat over and switch the oven to broil.  If the meat starts to burn too much, move to a lower rack in the oven.  Cook for about 10 minutes, until the meat is slightly burnt, and the thermometer reads 145 degrees.

Immediately, while still hot, toss the cha siu with the honey, and allow the meat to rest for 5 minutes.  Thinly slice the cha siu, and gobble it up with a steaming bowl of rice!

Unit Cost
Total Cost
2 lb pork butt
4 T rice wine
4 T soy sauce
4 T sugar
1 T hoisin sauce
1 t 5-spice powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 T honey


  1. Great pictures! and the recipe does SEEM easy. Got to give it a try. :)

  2. riffpetral: Thanks! I'm just glad that the prep for this doesn't require me to wake up at 3am to make it... according to my grandma all the guys that make the ducks/siu yuk/cha siu etc. in Chinatown have to start waaay early. Hope you find it easy and delicious!

  3. Misread the first direction about cutting the pork shoulder into strips and and went ahead and sliced it up or at least tried to. It was extremely difficult and I totally butchered the pork (not in the good way).

    Currently the "slices" are sitting in the marinade. Hopefully this doesn't affect the cooking process...

    Will provide updates. Still looking forward to it!

    1. Who knows, maybe this will be a lucky mistake! Now your pieces will be super-marinated, and depending how small your slices are, it'll finish cooking way faster. Hope it still ends up being delicious!

  4. They were absolutely delicious. Totally worth the effort.