"You eat first with your eyes."Ancient Chinese Proverb
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I love the "barbecued" pork and ribs in Chinatown. They have a distinct pork flavor, a glossy sheen that implies the sweet glaze beneath, and a glowing red-pink color that penetrates the surface.
Unlike traditional Southern American low and slow smoke roasted barbecue ribs, there is no smoke flavor, even though there is a pink ring beneath the surface of the meat. How do they do it?
Well, it turns out that Char Siu, even though it sounds like charcoal, is not grilled or smoked. It is roasted in a special oven, usually gas fired. And most of the time it gets its ruddy tone from red food coloring (some chefs use a red bean paste, or beets, but that's not common).
But it still tastes great. You can buy Char Siu sauce in Chinese specialty stores, but it is thick and gooey. It makes a fine glaze, but it doesn't make ribs that taste like Chinese restaurant ribs. That's because you need to marinate the meat first. I've worked on this recipe for a while and I think I've really nailed the technique for making Chinatown Char Siu Ribs at home in the oven or on the grill. Here's how to do this dizzingly delicious favorite.
This marinade is especially good on pork, but I used it on chicken, turkey, and duck with great success.
Jason King shows you how he did this recipe
Our friend Jason King had his talented video camera running when he made this recipe:
Char Siu Ribs Recipe
Takes. 20 minutes to make the marinade, 1 to 12 hours to marinate, and 3 hours to cook.
Ribs: 2 slabs of baby back ribs, cut into individual bones
Pork: 4 pounds pork loin cut into strips across the grain, about 1" wide, 2" tall
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup brandy (or dark rum or bourbon)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons hot sauce such as Tabasco
1 tablespoons ground/powdered ginger
1 tablespoons ground/powdered onion
1/2 tablespoon ground/powdered garlic
1/2 tablespoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon red food coloring
About the ribs. Many Chinese restaurants use spareribs that are chopped into 3-4" riblets with a cleaver. If you want, your butcher can make you riblets with her band saw. If not, you can do them whole. I like baby backs for this recipe because they are meathier on top of the bone.
About the Chinese ingredients. There are no substitutes for hoisin sauce, five spice powder, or sesame oil. They are responsible for most of what we think of as the flavor of Chinese and Asian-inspired food in the US. Five spice powder is easy to make at home (click the link above for my recipe), but the others are not easily made. Click on the links for more info on these ingredients. If you have trouble finding them in your grocery store, try Amazon.com.
About the hot sauce. If you have an Asian-style chili sauce you can use it, but any old hot sauce will work fine in this marinade since it provides more heat than flavor. The recipe above produces mild heat. Add more if you love pain.
About the food coloring. Food coloring is necessary for the authentic color. I am told by readers that you can substitute beet root powder for the red food coloring or fermented bean red curd, but I've never tried them. There is very little used in this recipe and most is discarded with the unused marinade. There are natural food colorings made from achiote and its seeds annato, or cochineal (a.k.a. carmine), an insect. If you want to leave it out, the food will still be great, but it won't have the traditional festive color.
Serve with. The classic accompaniments are Chinese beer or jasmine tea. If you can find it, try hibiscus tea or Pinot Grigio from Oregon (most of the California Pinot Grigios are borrrrring).
Optional. After about 2 1/2 hours, paint the meat with a glaze of honey and roast an additional 30 minutes
Garnish. Sprinkle sesame seeds, orange zest, and/or chopped chives or chopped green onions.
1) Mix the marinade thoroughly in a bowl. Don't skip the booze. It helps penetrate, and even if you're a teetotaler, don't worry, there isn't any measurable alcohol in the meat. Yes, I know alcohol can dry meat out, but I just think it works well in this case. If you must skip it, substitute apple juice or water. You can substitute fresh ginger and garlic for powdered ginger and garlic if you wish.
2) Marinate the meat for 1 to 2 hours in a metal bowl or zipper bags. Discard the used marinade. It is contaminated with meat juice. Don't marinate in a plastic bowl if you use the food coloring. It might stain.
3) As much as I am a fan of outdoor cooking, this meat also tastes great cooked in an indoor oven. Either way, heat your cooker or oven to about 225°F in the idirect zone. If you are grilling, set up in a 2-zone or Indirect system. Make sure the meat is not directly over the flame on a grill. Indoors, put a pan of water with a rack on top of it under the meat. This is important or drippings will burn in the pan. Roast ribs for about 3 hours, loin strips for about 1 1/2 hours. If you grill, skip the smoking wood. I think it is cleaner and brighter sans lumber.