When my husband was about eight years old, he experienced an unexpected growth spurt, not in height, but in girth. If his memory is correct, as it’s often spotty and selective when the occasion calls for it, he wore a size 36 in the third grade – he’s thirty years older now and he wears a size 32. We have no real proof, no photographs or otherwise, of his size back then since it was short lived – soccer and Popo’s choy, best diet ever.
Temporary or not, his mother was naturally not happy about this. Who was to blame for the corruption, or rather expansion, of her only son? Certainly not she who stocked her refrigerator with fresh choy and oatmeal. The culprit could be found hanging in the streets of Chinatown, in plain sight of pudgy, meat-loving eight-year-olds shuffling behind a father with way too many butcher friends. Whenever a hearty “Ah Chung! Hou ma?” was hollered from behind the meat counter, a char siu popsicle for the little emperor was offered up. Ah, mystery solved.
Earlier this morning, as the char siu baked in the oven and the smell wafted over to my computer desk, I understood for the first time my husband’s love of char siu. I can hardly blame him now, nor Low Dao who was the enabler in this story, for his childhood overindulgence in the other red meat.
How can I describe this mother of all treats for meat lovers? I guess its closest gwai lo cousin would be the turkey leg – undeniably barbaric chunks of smoked meat you can pick up from any number of concessions at Disneyland. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE Disney fan.
Char siu can be found curbside in China and Chinatowns everywhere. They are those medieval cuts of unnaturally red meat dangling from hooks as if it were the most natural thing, marinated in sugar, five spice, and red food coloring (among other nice things), and broiled until they become crispy and caramelized. Like anything edible, char siu is best when homemade, and to up the ante, Low Dao tosses his in a bit of honey while it’s still hot. Wrap a paper napkin around one end, hold it upright, and there you go, you’ve got yourself a char siu popsicle.
The popsicle form is but one of the many applications of char siu. You’ve probably seen it nestled in the womb of a fluffy white dough (char siu bao – coming up) or sliced and fanned out in a bowl of noodles. You’re more likely to have had it in unrecognizable bits coloring your fried rice or even on a platter of Chinese anti pasti at a seven course Chinese dinner. But I bet you’ve never had a char siu popsicle. If you have, please share your story here. This is probably one of the only forums where you’ll be celebrated rather than judged for enjoying a good ole char siu popsicle.
Coming up – char siu bao.
Char Siu – Chinese Barbecue Pork
- 4 pounds pork butt (shoulder) – why it’s called pork butt, when it’s a cut of the pig’s shoulder, is a mystery to me. Anyone?
- 7 ounces sugar (about 1 cup)
- 1 ounce salt (1 1/2 tablespoons)
- 3 teaspoons red fermented bean curd
- 3 teaspoons ground bean sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
- 3 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon red food coloring (optional)
How To Prepare
Cut the pork into strips about 2 inches in diameter and 8 to 12 inches long. Remove some of the fat (or all if you prefer it lean).
Combine the rest of the ingredients in a bowl. It should look like a wet spice rub. Reserve 1/4 of the rub if you’re going to make char siu bao later (keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator).
In a large bowl, mix the meat with the rub making sure that each piece is coated completely. You may need to get your hands dirty for this part. Cover with a plastic wrap and marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight if possible.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and move the oven rack to the upper third of the oven. Line a baking sheet with foil and lay the char siu out flat in a single layer. Bake for 25 minutes. Flip the char siu over. Switch the oven to broil and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
Immediately after taking the char siu out of the oven, transfer it to a mixing bowl and drizzle with honey (about 3 tablespoons). Toss the char siu until it is coated in the honey.
Slice and serve immediately. You can also freeze to use later to make fried rice, stir fry noodles, or to garnish a bowl of hot noodles. But ultimately, in our family, char siu is made into char siu bao, fluffy white buns filled with juicy char siu (coming up).