In Hong Kong, people eat a variety of different kinds of cuisines. Due to its location as the crossroads between the East and the West, people in Hong Kong eat anything from Indian to American and everything in between. For example, on one street, there is an Italian restaurant next to a Korean barbecue, across from a British pub.
Traditionally, Hong Kong food is not so ethnically diverse, however. Traditional Hong Kong food can be categorized as Cantonese cuisine. The word “Cantonese” comes from the word “Canton”, which is a region in southeast China better known as Guangdong Province. When Westerners refer to “Chinese” cuisine, they are typically referring to Cantonese cuisine. This is due to the fact that most of the early immigrants to the U.S. and other parts of the West came from the Guangdong Province. These early immigrants often established restaurants specializing in Cantonese food, although they gradually adapted their food to conform to Western tastes. When you order lo mein, egg rolls, or sweet and sour chicken at a takeout Chinese restaurant, these foods have their origins in Cantonese cuisine, although takeout Chinese food is very different from traditional Cantonese food.
Cantonese cuisine incorporates all edible meats, including beef, pork, chicken, duck, lamb, goat, fish, snakes, and snails. However, unlike northern or western China, lamb and goat or rarely eaten in the southern regions of China. Most of the time, food is either steamed or stir-fried due to convenience and quickness. Unlike many parts of Asia, spices are only used in moderation in Cantonese cuisine, in order to avoid overwhelming the flavors of primary ingredients. I personally think that Cantonese food is very meat-heavy in local settings. Other than rice, the focus of every meal is meat. Vegetables are typically steamed and are only eaten in small quantities. Pork is by far the most common meat available in local Hong Kong restaurants.
Char Siu, or barbecued pork, is one of the most common ways to cook pork and is eaten very frequently in Hong Kong, especially during lunchtime. Char siu literally means “fork burned”, which is a reference to the traditional preparation, skewered and barbecued over a fire. Because char siu is such a local dish, I decided to try it during lunchtime yesterday at a local Cantonese restaurant.
The meat goes very well with rice and is sweet and tangy. The meat also has a pleasant, slightly-burned flavor and smell which makes it seem like it recently came off a grill. I wish the meat had been more heavily spiced though, but only because I love spicy food. Ordering char siu at a local restaurant for lunch was unbelievably cheap compared to other foods I had been eating recently. Char siu with a bowl of rice and a side of vegetables cost me around 20 Hong Kong dollars, which is $2.50. What a great deal!
If you ever want to make your own char siu at home, you will most likely need to visit an Asian grocery store to get ingredients like hoisin sauce or authentic Chinese soy sauce. Here is a recipe for char siu:
-1.5 pound piece of pork belly
-½ teaspoon 5 spice powder
-2 tablespoons maltose (or honey)
-2 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine (or sherry)
-1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
-1 tablespoon thai chili sauce
-1 tablespoon Chinese dark soy sauce
-1 tablespoon kiwi, pureed
-2 teaspoons oyster sauce
-2 cloves garlic, grated
1. Mix the ingredients for the marinade together in a Ziploc bag. The maltose is a little tough to incorporate but it is okay if there are some lumps as these will eventually dissolve, just make sure there are no big clumps.
2. If your pork belly has skin, use a sharp knife to remove it. Add the pork belly to the marinade and push out as much air as possible so the meat is completely surrounded by marinade. Let it sit in the fridge for at least 2 days, flipping the bag over every to ensure it’s evenly marinated.
3. To roast your char siu, preheat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit and move the rack to the upper middle position. Set an elevated wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and lay the marinated pork belly on the rack, saving the marinade for later. Put the pan in the oven and let it roast for 1 hour or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the pan from the oven, then move the oven rack to the top position and turn the heat up to “broil”.
4. Soak the pork with the reserved marinade, and then broil until dark and glossy with the edges just slightly burned. Flip the meat over and baste again, allowing the second side to color and char as well.
5. Slice your finished char siu and serve with rice or noodles.
Char siu is connected to the Hong Kong environment in many ways. Pork has been historically the most popular meat in Cantonese cuisine because cows were typically used for labor and not for beef. The simplicity of char siu makes for a quick, easy, and tasty meal that conforms to the average Hong Kong person’s busy schedule. People in Hong Kong tend to eat out at restaurants much more frequently than most Westerners. Many people in Hong Kong often do not have time to cook every meal due to long working hours, so they often eat out at local restaurants for lunch or dinner. Most restaurant serving sizes are considerably small by international standards, but people generally have five meals a day instead of three like in the U.S. In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, many Hong Kong people enjoy yum cha, which is afternoon tea, and siu yeh, which is a late-night snack. Both yum cha and siu yeh are influenced by British tradition, as Hong Kong had been a colony of Britain until 1997.