Char siew served on top of aromatic rice and cucumbers
I would say that char siew has become one of my favourite foods in the recent years, probably due to the fact that my father has exposed me to perfect char siew in Malaysia (e.g., Bill Khoon and his Famous Seremban Favourites restaurant).
My definition of perfect char siew: roast pork, sticky and sweet, ever-so-slightly charred with crunchy bits, yet soft and tender with wobbly layers of fat.
To me, pork belly is the best cut for char siew; the tender meat is sandwiched between melting layers of fat, and the crunch is formed through a mix of charred fat and sticky glaze.
I would not use pork neck ever again; I used this cut the first time I made char siew in Sydney (as recommended by the lady at the butcher's) many years ago. The result was a piece of well-flavoured meat, with the absence of juicy fatty layers.
What??? No fat??? How can??? My father was incredulous at the mention of no-fat char siew.
Pork belly, it is. A nice piece of pork belly can be cut length-wise into thin strips (about 6 cm in width).
|This is one belly I love|
Now that I have chosen the meat, then comes the marinade. I would break down the marinade to three components: sweet, salty, and aromatic.
Char siew marinade has lots of sugar in it. Many recipes on the Internet would attest to that. After all, sugar is what gives char siew its charred sticky outer appearance and sweet flavour.What sort of sugar? Raw sugar? Refined sugar? Honey? Maltose? I believe more complex-flavoured sugars would add depth of flavour to the marinade, therefore, honey, maltose, and brown sugars would be suitable. I have also tried infused honey; I made a garlic-infused honey which goes well in the marinade.
|Home-made garlic-infused organic honey|
As for the savoury component, I use only light soy sauce. Many recipes use a combination of light soy, dark soy, hoisin, or oyster sauces. For me, I would like the savoury component to be as unadulterated as possible; dark soy sauce contains molasses and / caramel, which could be omitted since the marinade already has a high sugar content. Hoisin and oyster sauces contain MSG, amongst other things, which my palate would gladly forgo.
What do I classify as the aromatic component? Wines. I have added drinking sake to the marinade, and more recently, a combination of sake with rose wine, too. Sake balances the rose wine, which can smell too sweet and artificial, in my opinion.
No five-spice powder for me, thank you very much. I believe good-quality pork and a simple, yet flavourful marinade should be the stars of the show. Five-spice powder taints the marinade, and I think masks the musky smell of poorly-treated pork meat.
The marinade is added to the pork, then refrigerated overnight.
Cooking of the pork has proven to be a challenge. How do I cook the char siew to get a slightly charred outside, tender meat, and melting fat? Charred exterior and tender interior do not seem to be too difficult; I have made char siew with those characteristics. Melting, wobbly fat? Oh, that has eluded me so far.
So far, I have only used the oven to cook the meat. First, covered, at a lower temperature (130 degrees Celcius fan-forced), then, uncovered, at a higher temperature (180 degrees Celcius fan-forced). I have a theory to steam the meat before grilling it under high heat. I think that steaming the meat could loosen the fat and gently cooking the meat, then grilling it would char the exterior. I have not tried this method yet, though.
X thinks that I have mastered the marinade and charring. All that remains is the melting fat.
As your eyes trail down to this line, you would have realised I did not provide a recipe, nor the exact cooking method. That is because I have one last piece of marinated pork belly in the fridge. I shall cook that tonight, and document the method, in detail. Perhaps tonight's piece of pork belly would turn out to be the perfect char siew. If not, it is, yet again, a learning process for me, and a meal for my family. :)