It’s a humble dish that manages to capture the tongue: char siu, 叉燒 (caa1 siu1) a concoction of farmed pork sweetened with honey and cooked in the near-primitive process of skewering over an open fire. Char siu has become so iconic, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year, defined as “roast pork marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce.”
That makes it sound more simple than it is. A well-prepared char siu should be moist with its own natural juices, tender to bite, charred and slightly crunchy on the outside, with a smoky caramel flavour. In short, it’s one of the world’s great barbecue dishes – and its best versions are found in Hong Kong.
Pork is the default meat in Chinese cuisine. When a menu refers simply to “meat,” it means pork, unless otherwise specified. For this nation of pork connoisseurs, the fattier the cut, the more flavourful the dish, and by slow roasting the meat, fat can be slowly rendered for a delicious yet un-greasy meal. Amongst the food-obsessed Cantonese, roasting has become a preferred way for cooking choice cuts of pork, such as pork loin and pork belly.
In Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, much of the city was of the struggling working class and a plate of barbecued pork served with a heaping side of steamed white rice was a satisfying treat that soothed aching bodies and tired souls. Today, the char siu rice plate is still a lunch staple for many office workers. You could even say Hong Kong is somewhat addicted to the comfort food: a study published by Wen WeiPo in 2011 shows that people consume roast meats once every four days on average, with char siu coming out top on the list of favourites. Out of the surveyed population, 71 percent chose char siu as their can’t-live-without barbecue.
To make char siu, a cut of pork loin or belly is first marinated in a mixture of something sweet and something salty, usually honey with soy sauce, hoisin sauce, five spice mix and rice wine. Every char siu chef has his or her own secret recipe that they will take to their graves. Some char siu may be coloured by red food colouring to give it that bright tint, but expertly-made char siu isn’t reliant on chemical additives; instead, the chef will precisely control the roasting process to achieve a rosy tone.
The marinated meat is then skewered onto a roasting rack and hung in an oven, like laundry drying in the sun. Sometimes an open-fire barbecue method is used for a more gourmet version of char siu. The vertical hanging allows the excess fat to drip off and all surfaces of the meat to cook evenly. The name caa1 siu1 (叉燒) literally means “fork burn” and refers to the fork-like metal skewer that holds the pork over the heat.
A char siu chef worth his weight in salt will pay close attention to the roasting time as the highly-sweet marinade means the pork can burn easily, and yet diners love to have a little bit of charring on the edges of the meat for a crunchy accent. To achieve rosewood glazed char siu with a juicy-on-the-inside, just-ever-so-slightly-charred-on-the-outside takes years of training as a chef. Nearly all Cantonese restaurants make their own char siu in-house and pride themselves on their secret recipes. A chef adept at making a unique and popular char siu dish can be in demand and poached from restaurant to restaurant.
Diners will order a large plate of char siu as one of the main dishes for an informal gathering, or as an appetiser for a formal occasion. Fatty char siu is still the most beloved by gourmands, but these days it is more common to hear diners ordering “half fatty, half skinny” char siu in a half-hearted attempt at being health conscious. Some weight-watchers will even take on a fat-free cut, considered inedible by those true lovers of char siu.
Char siu can be found hidden inside many other Cantonese dishes. One great joy of yum cha — another word freshly added to the Oxford English Dictionary, referred to the Cantonese breakfast institution of tea and dim sum — is the char siu boa – caa1 siu1 baau1 (叉燒包), a fluffy steamed bun bursting with a filling of minced fatty char siu in an extra-sweet sauce. One of the recent popular incarnations of this dim sum is the caa1 siu1 bo1 lo4 baau1 (菠蘿包), a sweet bun with a flaky sugary crust stuffed with char siu.
Leftover char siu is almost always chopped up and thrown into fried rice with egg and scallions. This is a classic fried rice combination that can be glammed up with shrimps, dried scallops and XO sauce. But perhaps the best way to enjoy char siu is still the old way: by ordering a slab of the good stuff with a side of rice. Ask the chef not to slice the char siu and he’ll give you a knowing nod. Clasp the hunk of meat between your chopsticks and tear it apart with your teeth. It’s a simple and deeply satisfying pleasure.
Here are some of our favourite places to eat char siu (updated in November 2019).
Joy Hing Roasted Meat
265-267 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, 2519 6639
The undeniable king of char siu is Joy Hing, a no-frills roasted meats shop in bustling Wan Chai. Queues form early here, so get in line and be patient – the char siu is well worth the wait. The family has been making char siu since the late 19th century and are known for the most succulent slabs in the city.
West Villa Restaurant
16-20 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, 2543 3990
West Villa’s secret-recipe char siu is so good it’s said to be one of Jacky Chan’s favourites. They’ve dubbed their char siu “Big Brother Char Siu” after Jacky’s nickname.
Shop 2, 39 Queens Road Central, Central, 9852 1062
This is as hipster as char siu will get in Hong Kong. Good BBQ is the brainchild of a young female chef, who is raising collective eyebrows in the male-dominated field. The little stall in Central is doing a roaring business selling updated versions of take-out roast meat rice boxes with offbeat side dishes like okra in spicy Sichuan sauce.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.