After I posted my recipe for Japanese Cha Shu, I received a number of emails asking me for a recipe for Chinese Cha Shao (BBQ Pork). Normally found hanging in the windows of Chinese delicatessens, cha shao (char siu in Cantonese) is a marinated, slightly sweet, slow roasted pork with a deep crimson color and radiant finish. Non-Chinese readers may be familiar with it from dim sum as the tasty filling in Chinese steamed pork buns, and it is also commonly used as a fried rice ingredient in many Chinese restaurants.
Fuel, such as wood, is not particularly prolific in China. Most of the country consists of arid steppes, dry plains, and desert, which is why the most commonly used Chinese cooking techniques involve quickly cooking ingredients over high heat. Because of this, the average family in China did not, and still does not, count an oven amongst its household kitchen appliances. Instead, all roasting of meat was left to specialty delicatessens and purchased as needed. The use of so much precious wood was justified by the amount of meat being processed, which also cut down on the production cost per unit.
The reason so few recipes exist for creating delicatessen-quality cha shao is that it was a product never intended to be produced in the home kitchen. Even Chinese restaurants usually purchase the cha shao they use. A bit of Googling online turned up recipes with potential here and here. After fine tuning the product for months, and doing research into the history and professional production techniques for creating Chinese BBQ Pork, I created this method for making cha shao.
I used a slow-smoking technique with wood chips to get the smoky finish that the traditional recipe gets from a wood-fired oven. To make the recipe accessible to everyone, I designed it around the classic Weber charcoal kettle grill, which has been standard in most American households since the 1950s. Using an outdoor BBQ grill also neatly avoids the most common problem in making cha shao in a home oven; setting off the smoke alarms. Please try my recipe for Chinese BBQ Pork. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Smoked Cha Shao/Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)
1 chef's knife, Santouku knife, or Chinese cleaver
1 cutting board
2-4 large, sealable, 1-gallon plastic bins or bags
1 mixing bowl
1 2-quart saucepan
1 non-stick silicon spatula
1 Weber kettle grill (preferably the 22.5" model)
1 chimney starter
Lump charcoal (No briquettes!)
Apple wood chips (Hickory can be substituted)
Sheet pan or baking dish
Ingredients (Can be halved if required.):
20 lbs of pork shoulder, bone removed
2 cups of sugar
1 cup of sea salt
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
1/2 cup of dark molasses
1/2 cup of Chinese rice wine
1/4 cup of honey
1/4 cup of dark soy sauce
1/4 cup of kecap manis
1/4 cup of tian mian jiang
1/4 cup of oyster sauce
1/4 cup of hoisin sauce
1/4 cup of garlic chili paste
2 tbsp of Chinese five spice powder
2 tbsp cup of ground annatto
- Combine all of the ingredients except the pork and salt in the saucepan.
- Incorporate the ingredients by stirring over low or medium-low heat. The mixture should never get hot enough to bubble.
- Once the marinade is uniformly mixed and all the sugar has been dissolved, remove from heat.
- Let cool to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator if not using immediately.
Prep work (Chinese BBQ Pork):
- Trim the surface of the pork shoulder of as much visible fat as possible. This is a matter of personal preference. If you prefer a richer end product, leave some of the surface fat on. It will be impossible to remove all the fat, given the anatomy of that cut of meat.
- Cut the meat into 6-inch by 3-inch slabs roughly 1-inch thick. The meat should be cut with the grain so that you end up with long continuous pieces of muscle. This way, when you slice the finished product, you will be cutting against the grain, making for a more tender morsel.
- Thoroughly rinse the meat and pat dry.
- Rub a small amount of sea salt into the surface of each piece of meat. The salt will both season the meat and help kill any surface bacteria the rinsing didn't remove.
- Place the meat in your plastic bins or bags. There should be at least an inch of space at the top of each bin or bag.
- Evenly divide your cooled marinade between the bins or bags.
- Toss the meat in the marinade until each piece is coated.
- Gently press the meat into the container to remove as many pockets of air as possible.
- Seal your containers and place in the coolest part of the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. I prefer 48-72 hours. The longer the meat marinates, the more intensely flavored it will be. However, letting it marinate for too long may result in the loss of too much moisture, which means you may end up with a dry product. Do not leave it in the marinade for over three days.
- The night before you're going to smoke the meat, cover three large handfuls of wood chips with water and leave to soak until ready to use.
Instructions (Chinese BBQ Pork):
Thoroughly clean your grill. Make sure the bottom vents in the kettle are wide open.
Prepare a batch of charcoal by following the directions for your chimney starter.
Once the charcoal is white and glowing, carefully pour it into the BBQ's kettle unit. Push the coals together in to a small pile against one side of the grill. Do not use your hands. Drain roughly 1/4 cup of wood chips and sprinkle onto the coals. The wood chips should begin smoking immediately.
Set the grill plate in place. Shake excess marinade off of each piece of meat before placing it on the grill. The meat should be on the side of the grill not directly over the coals. Reserve the leftover marinade.
Place the lid of the grill with the vents over the meat, opposite the charcoal. Set the lid vent about 1/2-3/4 of the way closed. This will force the smoke to circle within the BBQ as it looks for a way out. Monitor the smoke carefully during the cooking process. You may need to add more wood chips periodically.
The first smoking phase will take two hours. After the first hour, begin preparing another batch of coals in the chimney lighter. As with the wood chips, the charcoal in the BBQ may also need to be refreshed occasionally.
After the first two hours have passed, flip the meat. Swap the pieces closest to the coals with the pieces further away. You may need to add more charcoal and wood chips. Smoke for another two hours.
Repeat the smoking process until all the meat has been cooked. As each batch of cha shao is finished, place it in your baking dish or sheet pan and loosely cover with foil. Let rest for at least half and hour before slicing.
Once the last batch of cha shao has been placed on the grill, it's time to make the sauce. Pour all of the reserved marinade into your saucepan, along with one cup of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and reduce by half, stirring occasionally. Near the end, the sauce will become syrupy. At this stage, more frequent stirring is needed to prevent burning. Once the sauce has reduced by half and become glossy, remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. It can be kept in the refrigerator for several months and goes great with the cha shao. It's delicious when used as a seasoning for stir-fried vegetables or noodles.
My favorite way of enjoying this flavorful cha shao is simply sliced at room temperature. I also love it diced and served over of hot bowl of steamed rice with minced scallions, grated ginger, and a light drizzle of sauce.
Makes roughly 20 units of 2-4 servings each.