The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (2024)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (1)

I have lost count on how many times I have cooked my Mum's Char Siew since I first posted the recipe. (Check the series of posts on Char Siew here. Go here for a pictorial post of this recipe)

I have experimented with different method and ingredients.

I have had it pressure-cooked, "su-vied" and oven-ed.

I have added other ingredients, hoping to improve on the recipe.

I could not believe that it did not need garlic or ginger.
I have wondered what oyster sauce is doing in there.
I had doubts on the amount of oil she started with.
But it's as if my Mum had a last word on it.

I have come away with a deeper appreciation of my Mum's tested and tried recipe. The next time I make this again, I will just follow her recipe to the tee. I won't claim this is the best CS around. I will say with certainty that if you follow her recipe, you can make a good satisfying home-made CS.

I blogged my "journey" here. And if you are observant, there are cooking techniques and principles to be learn.

My Mum's recipe is that simple because that is what she has arrived at after all the years of making it. You don't need more than this for a good CS.

1st lesson: Keep your recipe simple. A recipe with a long list is not necessary a better recipe. More is sometimes less. In trying out and developing a recipe, learn to pick out the essentials. Often a few good ingredients is all that is needed. Add something else, and it is either redundant or worse, alter the taste in the wrong direction.

The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (2)
Sliced diagonally

There are reasons why my Mum has stuck with using the wok for this. She had access to modern oven use in the later years but she never bothered to use that. Having tried different methods, I can understand why. Her wok method is simply the most convenient. From start to finish, the meat stays there. And you end up with a good sauce as well. I am wondering why I even bother to Sous Vide it. The vacuuming, and then the pouring here and there, separating the sauce and boiling it and finally trying to char the meat. And the oven ...

Have you tried digging your nose by putting your hand behind your head and come from the other way round? Don't try it: you may sprain your hand or poke your eye. That was how I felt after I tried the Sous Vide process. I will not bother with the oven either.

This leads me to the 2nd lesson: The latest tools are not necessarily the best. You may be aware of the current rage on "modernist" cooking. There is a lot of good - and science - in this and as with every other curious cook, I am open to it and learning. Some techniques and ideas are great and I have been using them. But no, it does not improve on CS made my Mum's way.

The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (3)There are also many recipes recommending brining, some for days. When it comes to CS, I don't see why this needs to be done. The wok does a pretty good job at braising the meats in its sauces (technically, "boiling"). Marinating it for a few hours does tenderise the meat further and make it more moist, and I will recommend this. But if you did not make earlier preparations and need to make CS on the spot, even without any pre-marinating, the CS will turn out well.

So, 3rd lesson: Sometimes you do better if you trust the traditions handed down to you than some fanciful theories developed elsewhere. Think about this, our Chinese recipes have been passed down through the generations. There is an accumulated wisdom. You only have yourself to blame if you think some smart cook or food scientist elsewhere from another culture can help you make a better dish than your Mum's or grandma's. I wish more Chinese home cooks will document their recipes carefully with detailed steps. I have a collection of Tham Yew Kai recipes from the 70's but obviously, not enough work has been done on some aspects of our cuisine.

So, 3 lessons:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use the right tool
  3. Trust tradition

I list here again my mum's recipe but I will use a different approach to present the recipe. And don't worry about the need for precise measurements, as I have already mentioned in my earlier posts on CS. If you want to "improve" on this dish, just learn to cook it better i.e. charring it neatly, doing the sauce well, experimenting with different pork cuts (as mentioned here, I like the pork collar).

You do not need to do a few somersaults. Or dig your nose the other way round.

Auntie Ruby's Char Siew Recipe

1 teaspoon - salt
1 teaspoon - sesame oil
1 teaspoon - dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon - white pepper
2 tablespoon - honey
2 tablespoon - sugar
2 tablespoon - Hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon - Chinese wine or liquor
1 tsp: 5-spice powder
1tsp soda bicarbonate (optional)

To cook add:
2 tablespoon - oil
1 soup bowl of water


  1. Add oil to heated wok.
  2. Add pork and after 5 minutes, add all ingredients into the wok and simmer for 40 minutes or till the pork is tender enough.
  3. Remove most of the sauce.
  4. Caramelise the meat in medium heat.
  5. After the Char Siew is done, glaze with some honey


  1. If you are using leaner cuts, i.e. shoulder pork, use a bit more oil
  2. During the "charring or searing phase", if you are cooking larger quantities (i.e. 3-5 kilos), char the pork strips in batches. It's easier and you will avoid over-grilling the meat. Control the fire. It will char well under medium fire too. Don't overdo the charring. Don't add honey as it will turn bitter if burned.
  3. When serving, slice the Char Siew diagonally. Apart from presentation, it will be more tender to the bite.
The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew - Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (4)
Pork Belly CS
The Food Canon : Auntie Ruby's Char Siew -  Summarised, Simplified Recipe & Tips (2024)
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