Char Siu: How Celestial Court and Lai Heen take a Cantonese classic to new heights
20 Sep 2021
When the name of a dish has entered the Oxford English Dictionary, you know for sure that it has become a global culinary icon. That happened in 2016 when 'char siu' entered the world-famous celebration of words.
Their definition - “roast pork marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce, typically served sliced into thin strips" - is precise but doesn't begin to convey any sense of the passion, devotion and addiction that fans of char siu admit to.
Is it those slightly caramelised edges, maybe blackened a touch from the heat of the barbecue? The sweetness of the marinade, enough to cut through the loin or belly fat but not overpower the taste of the pork? Or the combination of textures with rice or flaky pastry that usually accompanies it?
For many, it's all these three elements combined, especially when you're the chefs preparing this hugely popular dish for regular and new customers alike.
One thing that Chinese Executive Chef Jack Chan Wai-Kit at Celestial Court, Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers, will obviously never do is give away the secret of his marinade. His char siu is such a draw for diners that regulars have come in every week, without fail, for years.
The restaurant manager Pandora Lau likens Celestial Court to a family, where "People come back because they feel so comfortable, so familiar. Over 30 years in operation, we have seen grandparents bring their grandchildren in - and now those grandchildren themselves have kids who come to eat here."
It's almost impossible not to order the char siu. Think of those flavours, the marinade combining soy sauce with honey, rice wine and of course a five-spice mix: cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, Sichuan peppercorn and cloves. But every Cantonese master chef adds their own touches and techniques and Chef Jack is no exception.
Once the cuts have been marinated, then they're threaded on metal skewer forks which hang vertically and roast in an oven to ensure that every inch of the pork is cooked to perfection - while also ensuring that the fatty oils drip off and leave the cuts with just the amount of bite, but no oily residue or taste.
Chef Jack may have decades of experience and expertise in traditional, authentic Cantonese cuisine, but he's also not afraid to try new things, to think outside of the box and innovate. Crafting dishes with plant-based Impossible meats, for example, while his famous signatures such as baked stuffed chicken with black truffle, pearl barley and duck liver pay homage in a way to elements of French gastronomy. But for local and international diners alike, his char siu always has to feature.
His unique takes on char siu bao barbecue pork bun include the sensationally spiced, sweet and sticky prime pork that sits perfectly in a black bao bun under a sugary, crunchy crust. When diners descend for dim sum, it's rare to see a table without these barbecue beauties.
Likewise at Lai Heen on the 51st floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Macau, char siu is again a classic dish taken very, very seriously by Chinese Executive Chef Jackie Ho Hong-sing. A veteran with more than forty years of experience in his craft, his cuisine has been so sought after that he lived and worked in Bangkok for a decade where guests including the Thai royal family delighted in his flawless Cantonese cuisine.
The elegant one Michelin-starred restaurant reflects Portuguese and Macanese traditions in its design, architecture and motifs, with beautiful ceramics, chandeliers and water features.
The highest Chinese restaurant in all of Macau celebrates Chef Jackie's knowledge, his spices and flavours from his travels, how he shows his true understanding of flavours. His fried fish is particularly famous, while there are local touches like claypot shrimp that uses Port wine from Portugal.
Chef's char siu stands out for numerous reasons, starting with his choice of the finest cuts of Iberico pork from Spain. The pluma is a cut from the end of the pork loin towards the shoulder and gets its name - pluma means 'feather' in Spanish - because the cut's shape is like a bird's wing.
As Chef Jackie explains, "The presa cut is tender and offers just the right balance of meat and fat. The sauce is my secret recipe, with lots of herbs and spices, while we freshly roast the pork every two hours, in order to maintain the stock, keeping the juiciness and tenderness at the same time."
There's still more to the char siu at Lai Heen, however, as chef also crafts a special honey sauce to finally coat the outside of the pork, increasing the layers of flavour in the dish. Again, it's no surprise that Chef Jackie doesn't want to give away his secrets, but he admits that he uses Australian honey 'for its unique balance of floral notes and sweetness'.
On the palate it is beautifully sweet and fragrant, without overpowering the taste of the meat. Served on an elegant black slate, the vibrant colours of the pork and its shiny glaze define temptation and remind exactly why this dish has become so beloved globally - and now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.