Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I have lost count on how many times I have cooked my Mum's Char Siew since I first posted the recipe. (Check the series of posts on Char Siew here. Go here for a pictorial post of this recipe)

I have experimented with different method and ingredients.

I have had it pressure-cooked, "su-vied" and oven-ed.

I have added other ingredients, hoping to improve on the recipe.

I could not believe that it did not need garlic or ginger.
I have wondered what oyster sauce is doing in there.
I had doubts on the amount of oil she started with.
But it's as if my Mum had a last word on it.

I have come away with a deeper appreciation of my Mum's tested and tried recipe. The next time I make this again, I will just follow her recipe to the tee. I won't claim this is the best CS around. I will say with certainty that if you follow her recipe, you can make a good satisfying home-made CS.  

I blogged my "journey" here. And if you are observant, there are cooking techniques and principles to be learn.

My Mum's recipe is that simple because that is what she has arrived at after all the years of making it. You don't need more than this for a good CS. 

1st lesson: Keep your recipe simple. A recipe with a long list is not necessary a better recipe. More is sometimes less. In trying out and developing a recipe, learn to pick out the essentials. Often a few good ingredients is all that is needed. Add something else, and it is either redundant or worse, alter the taste in the wrong direction.  

Sliced diagonally
There are reasons why my Mum has stuck with using the wok for this. She had access to modern oven use in the later years but she never bothered to use that. Having tried different methods, I can understand why. Her wok method is simply the most convenient. From start to finish, the meat stays there. And you end up with a good sauce as well. I am wondering why I even bother to Sous Vide it. The vacuuming, and then the pouring here and there, separating the sauce and boiling it and finally trying to char the meat. And the oven ...

Have you tried digging your nose by putting your hand behind your head and come from the other way round? Don't try it: you may sprain your hand or poke your eye. That was how I felt after I tried the Sous Vide process. I will not bother with the oven either.

This leads me to the 2nd lesson: The latest tools are not necessarily the best. You may be aware of the current rage on "modernist" cooking. There is a lot of good - and science - in this and as with every other curious cook, I am open to it and learning. Some techniques and ideas are great and I have been using them. But no, it does not improve on CS made my Mum's way.

There are also many recipes recommending brining, some for days. When it comes to CS, I don't see why this needs to be done. The wok does a pretty good job at braising the meats in its sauces (technically, "boiling").  Marinating it for a few hours does tenderise the meat further and make it more moist, and I will recommend this. But if you did not make earlier preparations and need to make CS on the spot, even without any pre-marinating, the CS will turn out well.

So, 3rd lesson: Sometimes you do better if you trust the traditions handed down to you than some fanciful theories developed elsewhere. Think about this, our Chinese recipes have been passed down through the generations. There is an accumulated wisdom. You only have yourself to blame if you think some smart cook or food scientist elsewhere from another culture can help you make a better dish than your Mum's or grandma's. I wish more Chinese home cooks will document their recipes carefully with detailed steps. I have a collection of Tham Yew Kai recipes from the 70's but obviously, not enough work has been done on some aspects of our cuisine.

So, 3 lessons:
  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use the right tool
  3. Trust tradition
I list here again my mum's recipe but I will use a different approach to present the recipe. And don't worry about the need for precise measurements, as I have already mentioned in my earlier posts on CS. If you want to "improve" on this dish, just learn to cook it better i.e. charring it neatly, doing the sauce well, experimenting with different pork cuts (as mentioned here, I like the pork collar).

You do not need to do a few somersaults. Or dig your nose the other way round. 

Auntie Ruby's Char Siew Recipe

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

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

  1. Add oil to heated wok.
  2. Add pork and after 5 minutes, add all ingredients into the wok and simmer for 40 minutes or till the pork is tender enough.
  3. Remove most of the sauce.
  4. Caramelise the meat in medium heat. 
  5. After the Char Siew is done, glaze with some honey
  1. If you are using leaner cuts, i.e. shoulder pork, use a bit more oil 
  2. During the "charring or searing phase", if you are cooking larger quantities (i.e. 3-5 kilos), char the pork strips in batches. It's easier and you will avoid over-grilling the meat. Control the fire. It will char well under medium fire too. Don't overdo the charring. Don't add honey as it will turn bitter if burned. 
  3. When serving, slice the Char Siew diagonally. Apart from presentation, it will be more tender to the bite.
Pork Belly CS

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  1. Do we need to cover the wok when we simmer the pork?
    What is pork collar called in Hokkien if i buy from the wet market butcher?

    I really appreciate the recipes n photos taken of ingredients used. In fact, i bought the Rose Wine you recommended with the photo taken (easier to find). Like it very much for its lovely fragrance.

  2. You can cover the wok for the first 20 mins. Remove it when you want to concentrate the sauce.

    I just show the butcher what I want by pointing to my own body! Armpit, collar...Sign language :)

  3. By the way, not all cuts of pork collar are suitable for CS. Some have too much fat in them. A good butcher will advise u. You can also check the meat yourself

  4. Ok, so choose pork collar that do not have too much fats? But i'm wondering if this is the case, why use pork belly in your recipe since it will have even more fats on the skin top layer?

    Have you tried making CS with nam yu? How did it compare with this?
    Thk you for your useful tips :)

  5. Getting the right pork collar is difficult if you do not have a good butcher. I suggest start with pork belly.

    Pork belly has a good proportion of fat and meat. Some pork collar cuts are way too fatty and an unscrupulous butcher will gladly give them to you if you insist.

    No I have not tried using Nam Yee. But I am sure that some versions will have that.

  6. following your recipe, i cooked this CS and it is the best i hv tasted! My family had a most delicious CS dinner. Very grateful to you for generously sharing your recipes :)

    What is the specific brand of oyster sauce n thick dark soy sauce you use for this dish?

  7. Hi!

    I've only made char siew once before and would like to pick up some cooking techniques :) If i were to use pork loin cuts (steak, not the whole tenderloin) to make this, are there any adjustments to make?

    As its leaner than pork belly. How should I slice it? (diagonally as well)? I've used pork belly and its much easier to slice for beginners like me due to the consistent shape)

    Thanks a lot for sharing

    1. Not O.P. but restaurant chef for years; slicing meat diagonally makes the muscle fibers short, so even if you overcook your protein it's still easy to chew and therefore tender.

  8. If u r using pork loin steaks, depending on the amount, adjust the oil and ingredients accordingly. Taste along the way toill it is soft enough to your liking.

    Meats in smaller cuts cook faster.

    As for slicing, You can cut according to how you want to present the dish.

    A good char Su is about taste and texture. With some leaner cuts like pork loin, the texture is different and you don't get the same bite feel

  9. Hi Food Canon,

    Thanks for sharing all these wonderful recipes from your mom! I have been following your blog for a while and finally made the char siew - it was great! I have been meaning to share an amazing story about how small this world is - when I first found your blog, I very excited as I am a Singaporean living in the states and miss the wonderful home cooking from my childhood. Anyway, I was chatting with my mom and I told her about this wonderful blog I found, about recipes from an "Aunty Ruby" and as I was telling her about it, my mom wondered if this Aunty Ruby was the same person as one of her patients (she's a nurse at Mt. E) who was famous for her cooking. I sent her the link and indeed she confirmed that your mom was her patient!

  10. What a coincidence! That was her last stay at Mt E and she promised them that she will make some curry puffs...which of course never materialise.

    Hmm maybe I should make them some day and send them over to your Mom!

  11. Wow, what a small world! It's good to see the love going around like that. I'm a Singaporean living in Perth and while I don't have any problems finding local food here, it's very expensive and sometimes not up to standard. I tried the recipe yesterday and it was great! Thank you very much!! :)

  12. Hi lchia, to make the world even smaller, the food canon is my brother-in-law and your mum is my patient :)

  13. My hubby tried cooking char siew with this simple recipe and it really tasted good. thanks. Now we know we can cook some nice food with the recipes u have posted.

  14. Yes a good Char Siew can be cooked at home and e recipe is simple. Just keep at it and tweak recipe to your own liking.

  15. Hi Thanks for all the char siew recipe u posted!!
    I tried out your method of braising and then charring them, and the meat turns out great!

    Thanks again
    I guess we won't be having outside char siew anymore!

  16. ee - Most welcome. The wok cooked Char Siew dish is indeed simple to do and it turns out well almost everytime. Unless you get a very good quality pork collar, butt or shoulder is great. Great for dinners and kids love it too. Nice blog you have there.

  17. I must try your Char Siew recipe one day. Looks really good. I will definitely visit your site again. Headache sometimes wondering what to cook everyday. Meanwhile, I linked to this post as I was writing my recipe for char siew fried rice.

    1. If making fried rice, might as well just buy some unless you cannot buy it where you are staying. Leftover Char Siew good for fried rice.
      Hope to blog more daily dinner friendly dishes.
      An easy to make at home steamed chicken in ginger sauce post is coming up. Stay tuned!

  18. I would definitely love to try this recipe, in fact am going to get the pork belly this weekend. BTW a few questions
    (1) What sort of chinese wine should be used? Is regular rice wine ok?
    (2) Can I use brown sugar? What abt honey - is regular honey ok?
    (3) I am not familiar with charring or griling - what exactly do i use? I have a wok, and an oven and a turbo broiler - but no grill.


  19. For CS, I like to use Rose Wine. I have not used rice wine before and I can't comment
    The better the honey, the better it will be.
    To char, you can use the wok or oven. Easier to char with the oven though I am used to and prefer to use the wok.

    Happy cooking!

  20. Great blog! Thank you so much for sharing. I am going to try out the CS recipe.


  21. I tried your recipe yesterday and it tasted amazingly delicious. So much so, I had to blog about it.

    I stay in Japan now and to be able to cook/eat something authentically Singaporean/Malaysian taste is really comforting to my soul. Even my Japanese family loves it. Thank you so much for sharing this recipe.

  22. Thank you so much for this recipe. Now i am in deep trouble, my mom want me to do the shio bak recipe and also when ever there's any ancestral praying she want me to prepare this two. Argh...

  23. Hi - firstly would like to say thanks for a wonderful recipe. I've done it twice and it turns out beautifully each time. My little boy loves it very much. Thank you to you and Aunty Ruby.
    I'm just wondering if you would have a recipe for BBQ pork ribs - something like BBQ char siew except prob baked in the oven. I wonder if I can use the same recipe you have and instead of cooking in the wok - i bake it in the oven.
    YOur advice would be greatly appreciated. Once again thanks for sharing all the wonderful recipes.

    1. Sure, same recipe will work for the oven. Remember to baste the meat regularly with the sauce.

      Go easy on the honey at the start as they burn easily. Apply towards the end.

  24. Hi, the seasoning is spot on but I have made it a few times now but unable to get the tenderness I want i.e. a bit on the hard although by no means tough. How do I get it more tender? Should I simmer longer to break it down or shorter to get it just cooked? I used pork shoulder the times I made it and it had decent fat to meat ratio. My kids love the sweet crisp bits though!

    1. Justt simmer longer. Simmer means use lw fire, of course

    2. Thanks for the tips! By the way, I sliced up the leftover char siew and put it in a tortilla wrap with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and drizzled on the char siew sauce. It was really quite good! Like a Chinese-style pulled pork wrap. :)

    3. Yes, seems like there are endless ways to eat Char siew

  25. Tried cooking charsiew for the first time and it came out very well.. I added some augar and water while it was cooking... Thank you so so much

  26. Thank you for the ability to make great CS. This recipe is clear, simple and easy to follow.

  27. Wonderful recipe indeed! If I want to do Char Siew with meat and a nice amount of fat in it (like in Char Siew Stalls), which part of the meat should I use?

  28. Hi I've tried the recipe and used the part called wu hua rou, it was really good and delicious! Thank you for sharing your mom's recipe!

    P.S. And I've blogged about it here! ;)

  29. Jasline - thanks for the feedback

  30. Hi!

    I just made Char Siew with your given recipe but the exterior of the char Siew is burnt, leaving a bitter after taste. In fact, I did not have much sauce at all. I used a 250g pork shoulder and I adjusted the ingredients accordingly. Any idea why it had a bitter burnt taste?

  31. I suggest u try out using the amounts closer to the recipe as there are variations which can account for the lack of sauce...u may need to add some more water. As for bitter after taste, the charred bits will have that and my advice is not to overdo the charring or use maltose instead of honey.

  32. Can you help me to show the picture of flame when simmering? Thanks

  33. Actually have you ever tried to just use a blowtorch to do the charring? Saves switching on the oven and saves scrubbing the wok.

  34. Yes, I have done that before :)

  35. Is this something that can be done in a pressure cooker or happy call pan? Thanks.

  36. notshy - pressure cooker will work. Happy call pan is also possible, add in less liquid at the start.

  37. My foodie ang-moh hosts in South France asked if I would cook something chinese for them. I tried this recipe for the first time and it was a huge hit! They almost licked the plate.. Thanks Ps Terry for sharing your family secret :) - Deborah, Penang Place Restaurant

  38. Thank you so much for this lovely recipe. I just tried it out and the meat is cooling down as I type - it tastes wonderful! I had to use maltose as was out of a more neutral tasting honey, but it worked quite well. We are a long way from home and I'm sure my husband will love it. Importantly, reading about your mum was v moving, and the poem you wrote made me tear. Thank you for the blog! - Simone

  39. I have read your post. Thanks for your recipe. I will try this dish with my Philips airfryer.

  40. Thank you for sharing your mum's recipes so generously. I tried the CS recipe and as so many have already testified, the results were fantabulous. Just a quick question about cooking a larger amount (say 3-5 kg). Since the capacity of my wok may not be able to accommodate so much meat, would it be ok to simmer the meat till tender in a large pot and then caramelize it in small batches on the wok?

  41. Amazing. Amazing! We loved it. I used left over roast pork, sliced it and tossed it in to fry and added the marinade. Heaven. Saving this for sure. Thank you for this recipe. Love your work.

  42. Hi food Canon,
    Is there any replace mentioned for hoisin sauce?

  43. Litong - can use brown soy bean sauce, oyster sauce etc..can also skip!

  44. This will be my first to try cooking cs. How much of pork belly can I use following your ingredients? Thanks for your wonderful write up.

  45. Can you sous vide this and how if so?

  46. Check this -

    1. Thank you! Would you consider pork neck using this method?

  47. How much pork belly is used in this recipe?