In this solo cooking adventure, Gary recalls and recreates a tradition that began in college.
One of my favorite memories from my years away from home to attend college comes from my senior year. Unable to come home for Chinese New Year, my roommate Justin P (henceforth referred to as JP) thought we should do a dinner to celebrate in our apartment. As a reference, we had a 1970s-era Chinese cookbook his mother gave him. After a lengthy amount of laughter over the ridiculously cheesy presentation (it’s the epitome/caricature of what mainstream America thought of Chinese food and culture), we got to the heart of the matter and found some recipes that would get the job done. The end result was a great meal though perhaps not entirely an authentic one. We even took the DIY route to turn out a dish which I’ll elaborate on in a bit.
Skipping ahead to the past weekend, I had plans to visit JP in his much larger home (larger than mine anyway) and his much larger, better equipped kitchen. In advance of this trip, I asked him if he wanted to maybe do another Chinese New Year meal during this visit. JP, as always, was game and we quickly started sketching out some general thoughts as to what to serve. Char siu (Chinese roasted pork) was a no-brainer seeing as how that was easily the most fun we had the first go-around in college. As the weekend drew nearer, he got ahold of some great shrimp that would go well in fried rice so that was added to the menu. For a meal, fried rice and char siu would be nice; for a Chinese New Year meal, we’d need something more, but what? The answer came while we wandered through an Asian supermarket in search of ingredients we’d need for our meal. And it was a simple solution.
Pork belly! How did it take us so long to think of siu youk (Chinese crispy pork belly)? It’s everything you want – meaty, fatty, and crispy. What better way to celebrate prosperity in the coming year? With the menu complete, it was time to prep the meats, something we did a day in advance of the meal to give them the proper time to marinate.
The next day, we got to work cooking the suckers you see above. The siu youk was pretty straightforward – just sit the pork belly on an oven rack and let it cook normally, then broil at the end to crisp up the skin. The char siu, however, is where we got creative. When my parents would make char siu at home, they would lay the pork on racks in the oven but that would leave grill marks on the pork. That’s something you don’t see in the char siu at Chinese restaurants since they hang their meats on hooks. Well, in college, we didn’t have hooks but we did have paper clips. That was our DIY contribution to Chinese cooking – bending paper clips into hooks so we could hang pork in the oven. My forefathers would be so proud.
With the pork cooking in the oven, we turned our attention to making the fried rice since no Chinese meal would be complete without some sort of rice dish. Fried rice is sort of a freeing experience as there’s really no recipe. You just take some leftover rice, some protein, and whatever vegetables you’ve got lying around. Cook each component separately, combine, add some flavoring, and you’ve got fried rice. The only way you can mess it up is to use fresh rice because you will be trying to move one giant wet mess of rice. Not fun.
While JP made the fried rice, I sliced up the char siu and siu youk. The char siu didn’t come out as, well, charred as I would have liked it but any longer in the oven and it would have been overcooked. As it stood, it was already closer to well-done than preferred. The siu youk, however… man, there’s no greater sound than the crunch you hear when the knife plunges into the crispy pork skin. It came out perfectly – the skin crisped all the way through, the fat layer was of manageable thickness, and the meat underneath was moist. With that task done, all that was left to make our own plates and then it was time to feast.
Gung hay fat choy! That’s “happy new year” in Cantonese.
Char Siu (Roasted Pork)
(Adapted from Rasa Malaysia)
- 1 lb pork cut into 4 pieces (we used loin but it’s up to you what you want to use depending on how lean or fatty you want it)
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1-½ tbsp brown sugar
- 1-½ tbsp honey
- 1-½ tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1-½ tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp water
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- ½ tsp Chinese five spice powder
- ½ tsp white pepper powder
- 3 drops red food coloring (only if you want that deep red color you see at Chinese restaurants)
- 1-½ tbsp canola or vegetable oil (set aside for later)
- Combine all the ingredients for the char siu sauce, minus the cooking oil, in a saucepan. Heat it up until it thickens up and becomes sticky, yielding approximately ½ cup of sauce. Let it cool.
- Marinate the pork pieces with ⅔ of the char siu sauce and the chopped garlic overnight. Add the 1-½ tablespoons of canola/vegetable oil into the remaining char siu sauce. Refrigerate the sauce.
- The next day, shake the excess sauce off the pork pieces and carefully thread a paper clip through one of the shorter ends, about an inch from the edge. Be sure to leave enough room for the paper clip to hook onto an oven rack. I prefer to use the larger paper clips since they’re longer and tend to be stronger. Also, make sure to use plain paper clips as the paint on the colored ones may flake off.
- Roast the char siu for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F.
- After 15 minutes, glaze the char siu with the sauce. Cook for an additional 10-15 minutes. The pork should just begin to show signs of charring on the edges when it’s ready.
- Slice the char siu and drizzle with any remaining sauce. Serve immediately.
Siu Youk (Roasted Pork Belly)
(Adapted from tasty treats!)
- 1 cube fermented red beancurd (nam yue)
- ½ tbsp Chinese five spice powder
- ½ tbsp white pepper
- ½ tbsp sugar
- ½ tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp rice wine
- 2 lbs pork belly
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 2 tbsp white vinegar (set aside for when cooking)
- Combine all the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. The fermented bean curd should be thoroughly smashed until well combined with rest of the ingredients.
- Score the skin of the pork belly. This will ensure the fat has somewhere to go while roasting, allowing the skin to crisp and prevent too much curling from occurring.
- Rub the marinade into the pork flesh.
- Pat the skin dry, then rub the kosher salt onto it. Refrigerate and marinate overnight.
- Let the pork belly sit at room temperature for an hour before cooking. Take this time to preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Place the pork belly on a rack in the middle of the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Then, brush the skin with the white vinegar (it promotes crackling) and switch the oven to the broil function.
- Watch the pork belly carefully, as the skin is going to rapidly go from a pale pinkish color to light orange to dark orange, and if you’re too slow, to black. Remove when the skin starts to char heavily around the edges. This can take around 10-20 minutes after setting the oven to the broil function.
- Let it rest for a few minutes as the siu youk will be very hot when removed from the oven. Then, chop it into pieces, doing your best to keep the skin from separating off the meat as you do so. Serve immediately.