Char Siu (叉燒) is a time honoured tradition of slowly roasting meats either on spits over an open flame or in large wood-burning rotisserie ovens. The meat is normally coated in a very flavourful sauce before it’s roasted and the long roasting time gives the meat a deeply rich barbecued flavour. Char Siu is just one type of the largely popular Siu Mei (categorised as any roasted meat) in the Guangdong (Canton) province of China.
The normal cuts of meat used to make Char Siu are boneless cuts such as pork loin, belly, butt (actually a shoulder cut) and neck. The traditional method is to spear the meat on long forks and to roast it in a closed wood-fired oven, similar to the Fornetto or to roast it over an open flame. In fact the name Char Siu translates literally to Fork Roast. Seeing as it’s almost impossible to spear a rack of ribs you can imagine that, traditionally speaking, ribs were not roasted in this manner however, marinating the ribs Char Siu style and placing them on the racks in the Fornetto works like a charm!*
Char Siu spices are a mix of honey, fermented red bean curd, dark soya sauce, hoisin sauce, sherry or rice wine and the infamous Chinese five-spice powder. The addition of red food-colouring is extremely popular but entirely up to you if you choose to use it. I apply the mixture to the ribs a day before I’m planning on cooking them to allow all the flavour to be fully imparted into the meat. As ribs are a tougher cut of meat, they benefit from the longer marinating period.[
When placing your ribs in the Fornetto be sure to place a water bath in the bottom of the cooking chamber. The steam will help tenderise the ribs as they cook. Alternatively, for extremely tender ribs, they can be boiled for about an hour and allowed to cool before applying the marinade. This may benefit anyone that prefers less fatty ribs as well, as the boiling process removes a large percentage of the naturally occurring fat.
Once the ribs start shrinking away from the bones, and much of the fat has dripped into the water bath below, the bath can be removed and the ribs should be cooked further allowing them to brown. A moderate temperature of 160C (approximately 320F) should be observed during the entire cooking process. Remember that the key to cooking really tender ribs in the Fornetto is long slow cooking at a moderate temperature. Be sure that when using the Fornetto to always wear your protective gloves.
In Hong Kong, mainland China and in Chinatowns across the globe, Char Siu is frequently displayed hanging in windows after it has been roasted. It can either be consumed directly at the Siu Mei establishment for lunch alongside another roasted meat and a starch, such as steamed white rice. It can also be taken home and used a main dish for a more elaborate family meal. Char Siu is frequently purchased for use as an ingredient in different appetisers such as Char Siu Bao, a bun filled with Char Siu that is then steamed. It’s also used in various types of Dim Sum dishes. In Southeast Asian cuisine, Char Siu is almost always served as part of a rice dish along with sliced vegetables drizzled with a mix of sweet and salty sauces. Thailand uses it frequently as an ingredient in noodle soups. In the Pacific Rim, and most notably in Hawaii, Char Siu chicken is just as popular as Char Siu pork and follows almost exactly the same ingredient list as the Chinese however, the fermented red bean curd is often simply replaced by red food colouring for convenience. In Hawaii, it can be found cooking in a Imu pit, a traditional Hawaiian underground oven.
Char Siu is becoming evermore popular around the world and as such, different cuts of meat are being prepared “Char Siu” style such as the ribs I’ve done here. In fact, chefs from around the globe and most notably those from around the Pacific Rim, from Australia to California, are using “Char Siu” style meats in their cuisine and creations. It seems the sky is the limit when it comes to meat, poultry and some seafood done “Char Siu” Style!
As I mentioned earlier, in China, whole pieces of Char Siu are often purchased from the Siu Mei and taken home to serve as a main dish with steamed white rice on the side. Feel free to accompany it with any Chinese vegetable such as the flowering Chinese cabbage seen above, in a stir-fry. I always serve my Char Siu with a hot sauce such as Sambal or Sriracha for that extra spicy kick.
Char Siu can be eaten pipping hot right from the Fornetto or at room temperature. When preparing Char Siu meats on the bone remember that they should be cooked through properly. Pork’s safe internal temperature was listed at 70C (roughly 160F) but has recently been lowered to a recommended internal temperature of 63C (roughly 145F) when cooked. Check the recommended guidelines in your country for more information and use a meat thermometer if unsure.
*Feel free to use your conventional oven, kamado or smoker instead of a Fornetto Oven!