Char Siew [Chinese BBQ Pork]

Char siew aka cha siu aka xa xiu [in Vietnam] is a truly wonderful creation.  A cut of pork, preferably belly pork but you can also use shoulder or fillet, is marinaded in brown sugar, rice wine, five spice powder and other condiments / flavourings then roasted until done, with a slightly charred, caramelised crust and deliciously tender, melting meat and fat within.

The wonder of char siew is that as well as being utterly delicious – addictive even – is it’s versatility.  It can be used in fried rice and noodle dishes, over rice cooked in stock a la Hainanese Chicken Rice with sauce dishes of sweet chilli sauce and soy-ginger, in rice paper wraps with salad and herbs, and of course on it’s own as a snack or additional dish in a larger multi-course meal.

The marinade is flexible too; the key components are the brown sugar, rice wine, and five spice powder but other flavourings can be added to personal taste and even visual preference.  Char siew in restaurants is often fire-engine red, from the use of food colouring, which personally I dislike [both in principle and the visual effect] but you can use tomato sauce for redness and it adds to the caramelisation too.  Ginger and garlic can go in the marinade too, but not chilli, which in this case would clash with the sweetness.

The amount you make is up to you; you can double the batch, or halve it.  I’ve used 500 g of pork which makes about enough for, say, one recipe of fried rice or noodles and the rest for a combination noodle soup.  [that is, so long as the cook doesn’t nick every third piece while slicing … not that it’s been known to happen in my kitchen or anything]

The cooking time is also variable; a lot depends on your oven and how much char siew you’re cooking, but basically the “low & slow” rule applies.  That is, roast the meat at a low heat for a longer period of time than a faster roast; this allows the meat to reach the optimum level of melting sweetness.


. . . . . . . . . . .


500 g pork belly or pork fillet

Marinade ingredients:

2 tsp garlic, peeled and roughly sliced

1.5 cm nub ginger, peeled and roughly grated [I use the vegetable peeler to “slice” fine pieces off and discard the tough fibrous bit in the middle]

2 tbs brown sugar

2 tbs rice wine

2 tsp five spice powder

2 tbs soy sauce

1 tbs tomato sauce

1 tbs sesame oil

. . . . . . . . . . .


Combine marinade ingredients in a ceramic or glass dish large enough to hold all the pork pieces.  Taste for balance [sweet and smoky but not too sweet] and adjust seasonings if required.  Make a few 3 mm deep slashes with a sharp cook’s knife or Santoku in each piece of pork for better absorption of marinade.  Place pork pieces in marinade and refrigerate for several hours [or one and a half hours absolute minimum], turning frequently and drizzling the marinade over.

Pre-heat the oven to about 180 C.

Strain the marinade off pork pieces, being particularly careful to scrape off the bits of ginger and garlic [the reason they are prepped in larger pieces is to make them easier to remove] as they would burn into the pork.  Do not discard marinade.

Place the pork in a lightly oiled roasting pan; alternatively you can place them on a rack in the roasting pan – it just happens I don’t have a roasting rack, and it doesn’t make much difference.   

Place roasting pan in the oven and roast for 45 minutes to an hour.  Turn pork pieces and baste occasionally with marinade [again, avoid the ginger / garlic bits as they will burn and taste nast-AY].  If meat seems to be cooking too fast and the outside burning rather than caramelising, lower the heat to 160 C or so.  This may add to the total cooking time but better to go slow than burn the meat because of the high sugar content of the marinade.

When ready remove from oven and using tongs, move to a cooling rack or plate.  Allow to cool or at least rest for 30 minutes before slicing; it’s much easier to carve into fine identical slices if cool and if using that Santoku knife or ultra-sharp cook’s knife you’re packin’.

Use as suggested in fried rice, char kway teow, combo noodle soups, etc. 

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