Hong Kong Is Obsessed With This Barbecue
Cantonese cooking is known its subtlety and delicacy, the intention being to best preserve and showcase the innate flavours of the ingredients. Steamed whole fish with little more than a couple of slices of ginger, spring onion and soy sauce, is a great example. There is probably just one instance that that whole philosophy is thrown out the window, and it's Cantonese-style roast meats, where boldness is the prerequisite, especially in char siu.
Char siu is so named, simply because it is siu - roasted or barbecued, on a char - fork. Usually made using the pork shoulder (aka pork butt), the recipe differs from one sifu (master, or chef) to the next, but most of the time, involves marinating in a mixture of five spice powder, rose liqueur (rose infused rice wine), soy bean paste, soy sauce and sugar, then roasting and glazing in maltose syrup.
Good char siu should take little explanation. Like any good barbecued meat, it should be full of juices, have a little char and make your tastebuds sing.
Perhaps it's the bold sweet-and-savoury combination, or maybe it's the juicy, porky caramelisation - whatever it is, Hongkongers love char siu. We love it so much, we can eat it with almost anything, in almost any form. We love it right out of the oven, served on a bed of rice with a sunny side up, but we'll also have the offcuts stuffed in a steamed bun, or scramble it with some egg and pop it in a sandwich, or put it on top of instant ramen - hell, we'll even eat it cold, like charcuterie.
Nowhere is Hongkongers' obsession with char siu more obvious than in the numerous pop culture references. In The God of Cookery, the 1996 movie starring Hong Kong’s own funnyman Stephen Chow, Chow's character serves char siu rice so delicious, it makes a food critic cry.
There's even a common idiom used in Cantonese (the mother tongue of most Hongkongers) used mostly by parents so scold their children for being "useless": sang gau char siu ho guo sang nei, which translates as "it was better to give birth to a piece of char siu than to you" (because at least with char siu, you can eat it).
It's little wonder then, that in Hong Kong, char siu is ubiquitous. It can be found from the fanciest fine diners to fast food chains, to the neighbourhood roaster, who likely supplies the local diner, or cha chaan teng. Each has their own take on the “best” version of char siu, and there is certainly more than one "best" place to eat it. For us, the most intriguing are the standalone roast meats shops that serve each neighbourhood - because for most Hongkongers, that is likely to be their most frequented place for char siu. Some have become so famous that people willingly cross town for them, which is mostly how we've chosen our contenders.
Good char siu should take little explanation. Like any good barbecued meat, it should be full of juices, have a little char and make your tastebuds sing. Don't forget to check out our video to watch how the taste test went down.
Where we went:
Sun Kwai Heung
17 Kam Tam Yun House, No. 345 Chai Wan Road, Chai Wan
265-267 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai (entrance on Stewart Road)
Kam’s Roast Goose
226 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai
34-38 Stanley Street, Central 10:00-21:00
425 Queen's Road West, Sai Wan
Wing Hap Lung
392 Portland St, Prince Edward
25-29 Hong Keung Street, San Po Kong