It got Singaporean restaurant Char into the pages of The New York Times. Its recipe alone fetched a $2-million sale price for the previous owners of Kay Lee. Char siew – that Cantonese-style roasted meat in sweet marinade – is really more than just a hawker lunch option.
The dish started out as a means to stretch the best cut for large families. Strips of tenderloin were stuffed into the pig’s belly and roasted together, so that the prized cut could be portioned out together with the belly meat. Later, as families became more well-off, tenderloin meat was skewered and roasted separately. As direct heat dries out lean meat quickly, fattier cuts were used. Gradually, a sweet marinade that would result in caramelised burnt ends was introduced, and char siew as we know it today was born.
What makes good char siew? Anthony Ung of roast meat specialist Char says: “Food has always been about the whole package. There is never one single aspect of a dish that is critical, but the combination of sight, smell, texture and taste.
“The same criteria apply to char siew.” And his rendition served at Char – based on a recipe that took six months to develop, and which combines four different Eastern and Western cooking methods such as sous vide – is a different proposition from the hawker variety on all counts, from looks to texture.
Yet, the jury is still out for the best char siew in town, for taste is subjective. We go on a binge to sample the most well-known of this roasted meat.