Auntie Ruby's Char Siew

Monday, March 07, 2011

This food blog has been a long time in coming. I have always wanted to write one in memory of my late Mum, or Auntie Ruby, as she was affectionately known to many. Many have asked me to share this Char Siew recipe. I thought I might as well begin with this Cantonese dish as I have one nice photo of her with hers. I have since posted the recipe with a pictorial format here

Woking the Char Siew Out

In Cantonese, "char" refers to the skewered pork (or fork) and "siew" is to roast them. And that is how Char Siew is traditionally and commercially done: strips of pork skewered and stuck into a vertical oven to roast them.

My mum always used the wok, whether at home or in her commercial kitchen. I have never seen her grill them in an oven. Some find it hard to believe that the wok can "char" the pork. Think honey, sugar or maltose, and as the marinade dries, the fat burns and caramelization does it's work.

After all, haven't you burned food in the wok before?

Seeing is believing and you may want to take closer look at the photo below. I have oven-cooked before but I have settled for the wok because it is a whole lot easier. I do not need to break my back bending, risk burning my hand in trying to baste the meat or fog my glasses as the heat hits it when the door opens. And yes, having to worry about making the sauce from the drippings as they dry up pretty quickly.

The wok? I dump all the meats along with the marinade, cook on a small-medium flame, turn the meats once in a while, and when the meat is done, it is moist and leaves behind this glorious sauce. Of course my poor wife has to clean the sticky wok after that!

Auntie Ruby with her Pork Belly CS. She is beautiful, eh?
Start with fresh and good pork if you do not want mushy results. Fresh pork always has a firm bite. I prefer Indonesian though Australian will do as well, just that the latter has a stronger porky taste. I prefer shoulder because it I like the texture when it is done right. Belly will caramelize and taste better for some. If belly you must, perhaps go for the leaner cuts. (I have since blogged a belly version here and pork collar here). But the point I want to make here is that shoulder (or butt) pork turns out well too when cooked the char siew way.

Recipe for Auntie Ruby's Char Siew

(Note: I have blogged an updated recipe and simplify the method for CS here. You can also download a printable recipe here )

For 1 kg of Shoulder or Belly Pork (serves 4-6), cut into long stips of about 2-3 inch in diameter
2 cucumbers: Peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon - salt
1 teaspoon - sesame oil
1 teaspoon - dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon - pepper
2 tablespoon - honey
2 tablespoon - sugar
2 tablespoon - Hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon - Shiao Shing or Chinese wine
1 tsp: 5-spice powder
1tsp soda bicarbonate (optional)

To cook add:
2 tablespoon - oil
1 soup bowl of water


This 'tsp' thing is killing me. I prefer "aggaration." Why? Because my salt may be saltier than yours, and different brands of sauces produce different results. Just use the above as a rough guide. And remember one rule of good cooking - TASTE the marinade as you prepare and mix it beforehand in a bowl. Adjust to your preference. Actually for this dish, about the only indispensable ingredients are the sweet (sugar, honey etc) and salty. The rest are pretty optional, e.g. garlic, ginger. etc You can even replace oyster sauce with hoisin. Or add some salted soy beans (tau cheong). It will have a different taste but, most definitely, char siew. Experiment. Of course if you are mad enough to add tomato ketchup, you would have invented a new dish.

So how long should you marinade it for? 24 hours? 2 hours? 20 minutes? Marinating for a few hours will help to tenderise the meat and also help to flavour the meat. In any case, even if you don't marinate beforehand, your meat will be braising in the heated swirl of sauce in the wok and that should set the flavors in.
CS being woked out...

Next, heat up the wok and add in some oil (yeah, ok, 5 tsp...). How do you know the oil is hot enough? Don't dip your finger into it. A painless way is to place your palm a few inches above the oil and feel the heat. Or, lookout for the shimmering. After 47 secs (since you asked), add in the meats and seal them. After about 179.5 secs, pour in the rest of the marinade or sauce to be. Add a small bowl of water. Simmer in small to medium flame for about 30-40 minutes.

Turn the strips of pork every once in a while. Grab a pair of cooking scissors (indispensable for me) and snip off some parts and enjoy along the way till you think it is tender enough. As for the sauce, the end result should be a thick sticky sauce. So if you find the meat is still tough but your sauce has arrived, add some water. What you definitely want is the caramelization towards the end, the burnt bits appearing. This will not work if there is too much water in the sauce. Alternatively, you can remove some of the sauce and burn the CS further. If you are using belly, the oil would have oozed out after 40 mins or so and you are almost frying your meat.

The end result in the wok should look like this. I have removed the sauce before charring the meat further. As the liquid in the wok dries up, the heat applied to the meat will increase, and you are effectively searing the meat (Mallard reactions).

Now, if you still want to char it further (esp if you are using shoulder), you can use a tool which my mum would never have thought of : a blow torch. It will set you back by about 50 dollars but worth the investment if you are also thinking of steaks and crème brûlée. I borrowed mine from my bro-in-law who loves to char everything he eats.

I should add that the wok alone can do an adequate job of charring the meat. You can also finish the job in an oven.

Coming back to the sauce, adjust the taste, i.e. too salty, add sugar, too sweet, add some salt. Sieve the sauce into a bowl for a smooth finish. If you are using belly, you are likely to end up with a top layer of oil. Scoop it off. You should end up with a bowl of velvety caramelised sauce. Good sauce is an essential part of this dish.

CS is best eaten at room temperature. Not even warm. So let the meat rest for a good 30 mins or more. This is one dish which you can prepare hours before dinner time. Then slice and serve. As sliced meat will dry up faster, only slice what you want to serve and the rest can be kept till later.

Goes well with cut cold cucumber or plain fried green veg like Choy Sum. A steaming bowl of rice or wanton noodles.

Take a photo.

Stay tuned. Curry Chicken, Beef Rendang, Tom Yum to my liking and killer Tau Yew Bak may be up next.

Note: I have since reorganise the recipe and method for this dish and you can view them here. 

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  1. Thanks Pastor Terry! Can't tell you how this makes me salivate!
    My family will thank you when I get round to making some home-made CS for them...
    Question - would a non-stick wok work?
    Btw, love the title Food Canon! Suits you to a tee. You said stay tuned. Make sure you update soon... people across the globe are waiting!

  2. Hi Leong: Non stick wok can work. Give it a try and do tell me how it ends up. Need to experiment to get it right the way you want it. I am making Beef Rendang for a family carnival this Sat and so, that is up next. Need the pics before I blog.

  3. Wow I like your blog Pastor Terry!!! And thanks for sharing the char siew recipe! I miss Auntie Ruby's cooking sooooooooooooooooo much. Please share more of her recipes ;)

  4. Xiaoli - do jolt my did you meet my mum and where are you from? I mean, which group of her friends?

  5. I'm quite confused about 'kerisik' when ever I see mentioned in any recipe. They do not specify pounded to the point of dry or wet texture.

    Are there different names for kerisik that is pounded to the point of still being dry but broken up more? Like here (many sites show it like it this):

    And kerisik that is pounded until it releases its oils and is liquid like you show and also here:

    Thank you :)

  6. I suppose you are referring to the kerisik mentioned in my post on beef rendang.

    If you are pounding your toasted coconut, I will say don't stop at just a dry kerisik but go all the way till you get it oily and glistening. It is hard squatting work though :) but the taste is amazing. But hey, some exercise is good.

    Yes, your link here is good:

  7. Thank you for the informative reply!
    I'll skip the squat and go for the sit and pound tho hehe

  8. This char siew recipe makes me laugh! I went through the same experience with the oven (steamed glasses etc) so I tried out your wok method and it was delicious!

    Thank you. I love your posts.

    Malaysian in Vancouver, BC

  9. When you simmer the CS, do you leave the lid on or off? Can't wait to try this. In fact, have just bought the pork collar to try...

  10. Either will be fine as long as u are monitoring the water level. Hope the pork collar is the correct and lean cut. Most are inedible cooked this way.

  11. I tried cooking for 20 mins lid on to braise and then lid off to thicken the sauce. Results are delicious, tender, right amount of fat to lean meat. You are right, pork collar is definitely the way to go, is this called the 'bu jian tian' (see no sky) cut?

    The only problem is I can't get it to char like the beautiful charred pictures shown...Maybe I added too much water to the sauce?? Will try again nx time and remember to take a pic before my family gobbles it all down!

  12. I tried cooking for 20 mins lid on to braise and then lid off to thicken the sauce. Results are delicious, tender, right amount of fat to lean meat. You are right, pork collar is definitely the way to go, is this called the 'bu jian tian' (see no sky) cut?

    The only problem is I can't get it to char like the beautiful charred pictures shown...Maybe I added too much water to the sauce?? Will try again nx time and remember to take a pic before my family gobbles it all down!

  13. Wonderful recipe but I agree with Floberita, I can't get the char like those in the picture. Kindly advice, thank you.

  14. 3 ways to get a char:
    1. My mum's preferred method - using the wok. Remove the sauce when the meat is cooked, increase the flame and char away. Be prepared for a lot of smoke...
    2. Use blow torch.
    3. Put the cooked meat in the oven and grill it on high heart for about 10 mins

  15. Brilliant and unfussy way to cook cs and I love your food blog. Too many good and authentic recipes to try out, can't wait! Just a question abt the cs. Your cs has turned out a lovely red and mine an icky brown, delicious none the less. Is it to do with the five spice powder and if I do not find good quality five spice powder( I am overseas), how do I get the red effect on the meat?

    1. I made this particular one a long while ago. I think I added some red coloring. The spices won't give you the red color.

  16. Oh and I did use a non stick wok to make the meat and I think you don't require any elbow grease in cleaning the wok, just come right off with minimal soaking and scrubbing!

  17. Dear Pastor Terry,
    Thank you for making available for us to enjoy “Aunty Ruby’s” gifts and talents. I am salivating as I think of what I have placed on my to do list. I often forget that God also tells us to enjoy life. “. . . God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. (1Timothy 6:17b NASB)
    Honolulu, HI

  18. Thanks so much for this recipe, it looks delicious and I will be trying it tonight. Just a quick question, if I were to prepare it ahead of time (say a day or two before I need it), what would be the best way to re-heat it without drying the meat out?

  19. Keep it in ta Tupperware and fringed it. Then take it out till it is room temperature. cS is best eaten at room temp.

    If cold, quick and low microwave just to reheat it. Your an also sue some do the sauce and do a quick pan warm up.

  20. Hi, Pastor instead of pork can I use chicken and which part of the chicken is the best to make CS

  21. Thank you Pastor for the beautiful and easy recipe. I am now residing in Adelaide and this recipe came as a blessing to someone who don't really cook well. I made the CS last night and I must say it was good. I even shared the recipe with my friends.

  22. Hi Pearl, most welcome and glad that you are able to do some decent CS at home

  23. thanks to article Pastor, i am now at your premier Blog, which is well appreciated, reminds me of my 五 叔 公 and his son with the 4 & 20 Gallon steel drums and hardwood gently roasting away - the original SV with good smoky flavours.

  24. For years I have tried to roast a tasty Char Siew with recipes that were too complicated. I accidently came across yours,tried it today with100% success, such a simple recipe without the bother of using an oven. I am now going to use the remainder to make Char Siew Pau.

  25. I live in Switzerland and I can't go down the road to get my take away, so I came across your site and tried the recipe, fantastic just as you would buy it in the restaurants. I have tried many a time mostly grilling with not to my expectation , success. This recipe is so amazing as on the first try I have finally found the best Char Siew. Thank you so much for sharing it Readers don't hesitate, you will be missing out on something sooooo yummy.

  26. I'm cooking pork shoulder for my friend's birthday this weekend. I was going to do a straight paprika-based meat rub, but I've done a total turnaround having read this. It just looks delicious! Look forward to trying it out tomorrow...

  27. Hi Rachel - Hope it turns out well for you.

  28. Great recipe! Thanks.

  29. hi, can i use stove top to char the cs? thks...

  30. Could I use pork shoulder instead? and is there is a substitue for chinese wine?

    1. Yes the spork cuts can be used. hard liquor or rum can be use din place of Chinese wine.