One of the first Chinese foods a Westerner will taste on that initial, soul-changing trip to Chinatown, U.S.A., will be slices of the roast pork shoulder the Cantonese call char siu, the outside reddish, sweet, and slightly charred, the interior meaty and juicy. Few could ever resist its charm, for it is almost like pork candy.
If I have one complaint with the char siu around here is that the best pork is rarely used, and so what one ends up with is often gristly and tastes less of pork and more of sugar. The best char siu, though, is a paean to pig, a thoughtfully made (though terribly easy) dish that simply requires getting a good cut of heritage pork, slicing and marinating it correctly, and then letting the oven do the rest of the work.
|Charred caramel: half the fun|
Part of the problem is that only one cut is perfect here: the shoulder, which for some strange reason is known as “pork butt.” There’s lots of good meat in the shoulder, as well as fat marbling which keeps the char siu moist. If you get a boneless shoulder already trimmed and rolled up for a roast, that is even better because half of your work is done.
What I do is remove the butcher’s twine and find a natural opening in the roll. Then, I slice it around and around the roast into a long, ¾-inch strip that can then be cut lengthwise in half for ease of handling.
(Pork ribs are great cooked this way, too; simply slash them diagonally on the meaty side, marinate, and roast as directed below.)
I've made a few modifications to the original recipe over the years: first, I like Fujian’s red wine lees for both its beautiful scarlet color (which means no food coloring is necessary) and deep flavor. Then, instead of lots of sugar and maltose, I use agave syrup, which has a lighter sweetness and works perfectly to both season the meat and give it that crispy charring.
|Mix the sauce|
Roast pork, or char siu
Makes 2 pounds or so
Makes 2 pounds or so
3 pounds (or so) boneless pork shoulder, preferably rolled into a roast by the butcher
¼ cup char siu sauce (Lee Kum Kee brand is good)
1 tablespoon Red Wine Lees
½ cup agave syrup, sugar, or melted maltose
2 tablespoons catsup
1 tablespoon Meiguilu liquor or other white liquor
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
1½ teaspoons ginger juice
1 teaspoon ground sand ginger (shājiāng 沙薑), optional but good
Spray oil as needed
1. Rinse the pork and pat dry with a paper towel. Have a large work bowl and resealable plastic bag ready. Remove the strings from the pork and find a natural opening in the side of the roast. Use a sharp knife to cut the roast into a long, ¾-inch thin meat spiral which will be nicely marbled with fat. Slice the meat crosswise into two long pieces. Use a sharp fork or knife to stab it all over so that the marinade can penetrate the flesh easily.
2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in the large work bowl and add the pork. Toss it gently in the marinade to coat it thoroughly. Dump the meat and marinade into the plastic bag, press out most of the air, and seal it. Then, place the meat in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours to give the flavors time to insinuate themselves into the pork. Take the bag out every hour or so to massage the meat through the plastic and turn it over.
|Marinate the sliced pork|
3. Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat it to 350°F. Prepare a broiling pan or other large, rimmed pan and a large cake rack that fits easily into the pan; spray both with oil. Remove the pork from the marinade, but reserve any leftover sauce. Lay the slabs of meat on the cake rack so that they do not touch each other and bake the pork for around 15 minutes, then turn both pieces over, baste with some reserved marinade, and cook another 15 minutes. Raise the heat to 400°F and pour water into the pan so that the marinade doesn’t burn. Continue to roast the meat, turning occasionally and brushing on more of the marinade each time, until the pork is lightly charred all along the edges. Let it come to room temperature and slice it thinly before serving; leftovers can be stored in a clean resealable bag in the refrigerator or frozen for later use.