02/18/2011 01:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Making Chinese Char Siu Pork or Ribs at Home is Easy

I love love 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, 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 barbecued, 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. Sigh.


But it still tastes great. You can buy Char Siu sauce in Chinese specialty stores, and 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 finally 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, perfect for when the grill is buried under snow.


Serves. 4
Preparation time. 20 minutes to make the marinade, 3 to 12 hours to marinate

Cooking time. About 90 minutes

The meat
2 slabs of baby back ribs, cut in half lengthwise, or 4 pounds pork loin cut into strips about 1" wide, 1" tall, and 6" long

How one restaurant does it

Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant (5039 N. Broadway St., Chicago, IL 60640, phone 773-769-1254) has been an Uptown Chicago destination since 1987. Owner Eric Cheng learned Chinese barbecue, in Guangdong Province in Southern China, home of Cantonese cuisine. He fled Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China in 1972 by swimming eight hours to Hong Kong where he apprenticed and became a Barbecue Master. He emigrated to New York in 1976 and Chicago in 1986. Here's how he makes barbecue pork (the photos were taken at his previous location):


Strips of pork loin marinate for 20-30 minutes in red bean curd paste, soy bean paste, sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, oyster sauce, ginger, and dried shallots.


The marinated pork loin strips are skewered and hung in the oven to roast for about 50 minutes. Some ovens use charcoal, but most use gas. The burners go around the bottom of this well-insulated cabinet. There is no smoke.


When done they are dunked in a molasses-like sauce similar to Char Siu sauce. Barbecue pork loin sections can be bought in slabs or sliced. Click here for more pictures of how they cook at Sun Wah.

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The marinade

1/2 cup hoisin sauce

1/2 cup brandy (or rum or bourbon)

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons hot sauce such as Tabasco or Sriracha

2 tablespoons powdered ginger

1 tablespoon powdered garlic

1 tablespoon five spice powder

2 tablespoons powdered onion

2 teaspoons red food coloring

The glaze
About 1/4 cup of honey or Char Siu sauce

About the meat. 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 a bit meathier. You can also substitute 4 pounds of pork loin for the ribs if you wish.

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 food. Five spice powder is easy to make at home, but the others are not easily made at home. Click on the links for more info on these ingredients. If you have trouble finding them in your grocery store, try

About the hot sauce. If you have an Asian-style chili sauce such as Sriracha you can use it, but any old hot sauce will work fine in this marinade since it provides more heat than flavor.

About the food coloring. I am told you can substitute beet root powder for the red food coloring or fermented red bean paste, but I've never tried them.

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).

Do this
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 ribs. Yes, I know alcohol can dry meat out, but I just think it works well in this case. If you must skip it, use apple juice or water, but booze is better. You can substitute fresh ginger and garlic for powdered ginger and garlic if you wish.

2) Marinate the meat for at least 3 hours in zipper bags. Overnight is better.

3) As much as I am a fan of outdoor cooking, this meat tastes great cooked in an indoor oven. Either way, heat your grill or oven to about 300°F. If you are grilling, set up in a 2-zone indirect system. Make sure the meat is not directly over the flame on a grill. If necessary, put a pan of water with a rack on top of it under the meat. Roast for about 60 minutes.

4) After about 60 minutes for ribs and about 45 minuted for loin meat, paint one side with a coat of the glaze (honey or Char Siu sauce). Cook for 10 minutes, glaze side up. Turn them over, paint with glaze. Cook another 10 minutes. Remove them, let them sit for 5 minutes, cut ribs into individual bones, and serve. I like to sprinkle them with chopped fresh chives.

What's your favorite Chinese restaurant dish?

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