Cooking Char Siew in Toronto

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


I am barely into the 3rd week of my Sabbatical here in Toronto and already, I have made new friends, and renewed ties with old ones.

And yes, I did some cooking. I get to cook for a dinner party about once a week during the weekend. It is a welcome change in the midst of studying and lots of readings during the weekdays.

What is it like to cook off my blog in a city in the Northern hemisphere? That sparked my own curiosity, as well as my friends here who were longing for some good Asian dishes. The pork and the sauces here are different. Are the instructions on my blog clear enough? Will the wok method work here in this dry weather? Would I set off the smoke detector alarm?

Along with a friend (Tino), we set out to make three kilos of Char Siew for a party.

Tino loves to cook and he was a fan of my blog before we became friends; he was already trying out my CS recipe (rather unsuccessfully) before he met me in person, something which we only discovered when I showed him my blog.

So it is interesting for me to understand why it did not work for him the first time. As I cooked with him, I took him through the basics and I am confident that he will be able to make this well from here on. As we cooked, we decided to stick strictly to my Mum's recipe and see how it turned out.

A few words again about my mum's Char Siew. It is not the best CS recipe around. Saying this may surprise you but I want to put this in perspective. There are many ways to cook CS and I am not about to join the game of trying to find out the "best CS" in town, whatever that may mean.

But what I can assure you is that my Mum's recipe can produce a very decent version and the best thing about it is that you can make it from the comfort of your home kitchen. You make it from start to finish in a wok using staple ingredients which you are likely to have in your pantry. Once you learn it, you are likely to cook it quite regularly for your family dinners. And once the basics are understood (braising and searing), you can apply the same technique to pork ribs, beef etc. My blog is about "inspiring home cooks," and this recipe does it perfectly.

I have a few posts on my mum's CS recipe but  this pictorial here explains it best.

In earlier tries, Tino made some mistakes. He did not read the instructions carefully and put in too much salt (the usual mistake of using tablespoon instead of teaspoon). What I did with him this time round is to mix the sauce in a separate bowl first and taste. We followed my Mum's recipe exactly with the exception of replacing Chinese Wine with Rose Wine, which is of course perfect for roasted meat dishes.

Back home, I would normally prefer to use the belly cuts. But here, the Canadian pigs have a lot more fat marbling due to the weather. The pork belly cuts had way too much fat and I opted for the butt cuts, which were very nicely marbled.

It is important to note that well-marbled meat is normally more tender and cooks faster. This batch of pork certainly cooked fast and I did overcook this batch (too long, fire could be lower). Those who ate thought it was very delicious but as usual, the cook is more self-critical as I had many previous batches to compare with.

The charring was easy, a step which Tino did not observe previously, but it meant that there was a need to scrub the wok after that (one reason why I don't recommend using a non-stick wok). No fire alarms were set off as we controlled the fire and we did not smoke the kitchen. At home I use a anodised wok, which I find to be most effective for the charring phase. On this occasion, I was using a stainless steel wok.

For wok CS making, if you can help it, I will recommend no more than 2 kilos of pork per batch so that the strips of meat can stay in the centre zone and be more evenly cooked. Remember to keep the size of the strips at the right thickness (about 1 x 1/2 inch) such that all you need is to slice it later into pieces for serving. This way, the strips will cook faster and then you get the right outer glaze and meat proportion. It is not necessary to use red colouring and this way, your CS looks more home cooked and less like commercial ones.

The rest of the photos here help give you a visual sense of how we cooked this batch.

I will definitely be cooking this in Toronto again and look forward to perfecting my mum's recipe with Canadian pork.

3 kilo of pork butt - beautifully marbled. These came as is from the
super mart (TnT) & we needed to thin them further into narrower strips
Tino mixing the sauce in a separate bowl to ensure we get the taste right before
committing the pork to it
Pouring the sauce into the wok
Tino learning to char the pork strips. We have removed the sauce at this stage 
This is how the charred pork looked like
Served for dinner

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