What Is Char Siu?

Eugene P.

Char siu is the name of both a roasted Asian pork dish and the sauce used to marinade the dish's meat before it is roasted. In Asian communities, the meat is often hung in the front window of shops and restaurants and can be easily identified by the bright red color on the surface of the meat. This color can be achieved with either food coloring or red bean paste. The marinade, or char siu sauce, is usually made of dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, five-spice powder and rice wine, although extra spices such as star anise, brown sugar and fermented bean sauce also can be added. The meat can be served on its own as a sliced entree or shredded or chopped and used in other dishes.

Char siu may contain star anise.
Char siu may contain star anise.

The name "char siu" translates to mean "fork roasted", which is a reference to the original cooking method. The meat, after marinating, is traditionally placed on a long cooking fork and roasted over an open fire, allowing the flames to caramelize the sugars left from the marinade. This method is rarely used outside of very traditional or high-end restaurants. Instead, the meat is more commonly cooked either hanging vertically in a tall oven or simply roasted. The pork is occasionally finished on a grill to provide a darker color and crispy outer texture.

A spoonful of hoisin sauce, which is used to make char siu.
A spoonful of hoisin sauce, which is used to make char siu.

The preparation of char siu starts with the assembly of the marinade, which imparts most of the flavor to the pork. The marinade is made from a base of hoisin sauce, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, five-spice powder, rice wine and usually granulated or brown sugar. Additional ingredients can include diced green onions, star anise, ginger, garlic and sesame oil. The distinctive red color of the pork can be gained by including either red food coloring or red bean paste in the marinade, although neither these ingredients nor the coloring is necessary. The meat is marinated in the mixture overnight.

Once the pork has completed marinating, it is roasted in an oven or on a grill until it has finished cooking. In the last moments of cooking, honey or malt sugar is brushed over the surface to give the meat a glossy sheen. It can be served as a roast with vegetables or sliced in other dishes. A popular use is as a filling in steamed buns called char siu bao.

The char siu sauce itself also can be used on its own, independent of the pork. It can be used to treat other meats, or poultry such as duck. It also is served over rice and vegetables, for which it provides a strong taste and color to an otherwise vegetarian dish.

Char siu sauce is used to marinate duck and other poultry meats.
Char siu sauce is used to marinate duck and other poultry meats.

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