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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Cantonese barbecue (siu mei)

By Gabrielle Caselis 20 August 2021

Header image courtesy to Persus Choi (via Shutterstock)

Whether served in a white styrofoam “rice box” (飯盒; faan6 hap6) or well-plated with complete complimentary condiments, we Hongkongers love our Cantonese barbecue (燒味; siu1 mei6)! There is something intrinsically comforting about steamed jasmine rice topped with juicy slices of barbecued pork or a crispy-skinned roast goose drumstick in a bowl of rice noodles. Barbecue pork rice (叉燒飯; cha1 siu1 fan6) has become such a staple that even a fictional version—the sorrowful rice from the Stephen Chow movie The God of Cookery (1996)—has become iconic in its own right. 

The appeal of Cantonese barbecue is universal, regardless of whether your budget is limited or bottomless, if you’re grabbing a meal-to-go or expect a gastronomical journey, these familiar flavours can be found everywhere across our dot-sized city. As a go-to meal that we crave on the regular (every four days, according to a survey) we often debate where to get the best crispy roast pig or soy sauce chicken, but rarely do we question how Cantonese barbecue came to be—so let’s dig in!

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Roast and fresh meat shop in North Bridge Road, Singapore (1969) Photo: nas.gov.sg

History of siu mei

Cantonese cuisine originates from the province of Guangdong, southern China. As a coastal region and trade hub, seafood and imported ingredients are characteristic of Cantonese cuisine and are often prepared using straightforward cooking methods like stir-frying and steaming. Like with other Chinese cuisines, pork plays a hugely important role in Cantonese food, with iconic Cantonese dishes like sweet and sour pork, claypot rice with lap cheung (臘腸; dried Chinese sausage), and congee with lean pork and century egg featuring the protein prominently.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when barbecue cooking began in China—archaeological evidence from an ancient Beijing cave system suggests that controlled fires and hearths were being used over 460,000 years ago—roast duck can be traced back to the Southern and Northern dynasties, while Cantonese-style marinated barbecue is believed to date back to the Tang and Song dynasties. As Guangdong was a trade hub, scholars have theorised that siu mei was developed using ingredients imported by Arabian and Indian traders travelling the Maritime Silk Road.

By the Qing dynasty, Guangdong was famed for its roast meats—in fact, Joy Hing, which is often touted as one of the best siu lap shops in Hong Kong, was founded in Guangdong during the late 1800s. As the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, Cantonese people who scattered to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Australia, North America, and further afield brought Cantonese barbecue with them.

During Hong Kong’s 1950s and 1960s industrial boom, siu mei rice became a staple for the increasingly busy population, as an affordable and widely available meal that was beloved by everyone from labourers to executives.

As demand for siu mei grew, wood-fired roasting pits were increasingly replaced with charcoal- or gas-fired ovens—nicknamed “Apollo ovens” because of their resemblance to the Apollo space capsule—and the government stopped issuing new licences for wood-fired pits in the 1980s. While the ovens are more efficient and space-saving, the roast meats they produce lack the smokiness of wood-roasted meats—and the reduction in capacity also meant that cooks stopped roasting whole pigs to make siu yuk, instead choosing to roast pork bellies.

Nowadays, siu mei is an essential part of Cantonese cuisine, with restaurants specialising in different types of siu mei like Yung Kee, Yat Lok, Joy Hing, considered must-visit spots by both locals and tourists alike. Char siu in particular is so integral to Hong Kong culture that it has even made it into our slang, while an entire restaurant—Chop Chop—stakes its reputation on selling the sorrowful rice from The God of Cookery.

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Types of siu mei: the classics and the (possibly) lesser-known

Before diving into the nitty-gritty, we can all benefit by learning the differences between these delicious meats. Cantonese barbecue restaurants and shops usually offer two preparations of meat—roasted and steamed. These restaurants never fail to include the crowd-pleasing barbecue pork (叉燒; cha1 siu1), “white-cut” chicken (白切雞; baak6 chit3 gai1), and roasted pork belly (燒肉; siu1 yuk6). If you’re lucky, you might also be able to order roasted duck (燒鴨; siu1 ngaap3), roasted goose (燒鵝; siu1 ngo2), soy sauce chicken (豉油雞; si6 yau4 gai1), or even orange cuttlefish (鹵水墨魚; lou5 seui2 mak6 yu4). These roasted meats are typically bought paired with rice in a set or a main dish to share.

Photo: @tintinvino (via Instagram)

Barbecue pork (叉燒)

Char siu, or barbecued pork, is by far the most popular Cantonese roast meat around. Its name actually means "fork-roasted" and its iconic red hue is further accentuated by red dye in some restaurants. Whether you go for the fatty slices or leaner cuts, you can’t go wrong with this sweet-and-savoury dish. The flavourful glaze is made up of soy sauce, fermented soybeans, garlic, hoisin sauce. Besides these core ingredients, many restaurants add their own secret ingredients to further highlight the fragrance, umami, and tenderness of the dish.

Photo: Chop Chop

“White-cut” chicken (白切雞)

Winner winner chicken dinner! With a side of spring onion and ginger dip (薑蓉; geung1 yung4), this popular dish is a light yet flavourful siu mei option. While white-cut chicken is prepared by poaching or steaming a chicken whole in a salt marinade, it is still considered a siu mei dish as it is often found at specialist roast meat shops. When served as an entrée, the carcass is discarded, and the white and dark meats are fanned out. It’s similar in preparation and presentation to Hainanese poached chicken, but unlike the Singaporean national dish, white-cut chicken does not come with seasoned oil rice.

Photo: @chopchophongkong (via Instagram)

Roasted pork belly (燒肉)

This dish is prepared by roasting pork belly until the skin is crisp and the meat is tender and juicy. To achieve the proper crispness of the skin, the pork belly in question must have a nice layer of fat, and the best siu yuk should display five distinct alternating layers of fat and meat. When done right, the simple and basic marinade of salt and vinegar should impart the pork with enough flavour that it can be consumed without additional condiments—but if you’re feeling sauce-y, you can request a side of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or even spicy mustard.

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Photo: @foodiejunkie_uk (via Instagram)

Roasted goose (燒鵝)

Roast goose served with sweet plum sauce is the stuff that chef’s kisses were invented for. This golden bird is packed full of umami deliciousness, and gets its characteristically shatteringly crisp skin by being hung dry. Some restaurants and shops even use non-traditional methods like frying the duck whole to get it extra-crispy, but purists (us included) believe that properly roasted goose is crispy enough on its own. Roasted duck and roast pigeon (燒乳鴿; siu1 yu5 gap3) is prepared in the same way.

Photo: @felixyim (via Instagram)

Soy sauce chicken (豉油雞)

This dish is marinated in—you guessed it!—soy sauce. Like white-cut chicken, this dish is steamed, rather than roasted. The skin is supple and gelatinous and the salty, savoury flavour of the soy sauce gives the clean-tasting chicken a moreish depth of flavour. While some health-conscious diners usually remove the skin when eating chicken, we’re convinced it’s the best part.

Photo: @sticky_rice_kid (via Instagram)

Orange cuttlefish (鹵水墨魚)

Why is it orange? Well, it’s just food dye—but the marinade itself is master stock (滷水; lo5 seui2), a savoury soy sauce-based brine made with Chinese spices and dried ingredients. When hung in siu mei shop windows alongside various roasted and steamed meats, this almost-fluorescent dish stands out. Orange cuttlefish is normally sliced into small, bite-sized pieces and provides a soft-yet-chewy texture that contrasts nicely with the tender meat of other siu mei dishes. It can be dipped in soy-based dipping gravy for an additional salty kick.

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By Beverly Ngai 4 November 2020

Siu mei’s foundational flavours

The three pillars of siu mei’s flavours are a winning combination of sweet, salty, and umami. While every part of China has its own roast meat, Cantonese barbecue is particularly sweet. Oyster sauce and hoisin sauce are commonly used to build the trifecta of flavour as both balance sweet, salty, and umami, while spices like five-spice, star anise, and cloves are used to lend that coveted depth of flavour to roast meats.

Sauces and condiments are also used to add textural and flavour contrasts, with certain types of siu mei being commonly paired with specific accompaniments, like hot mustardsweet plum sauce, and sweet soy sauce. In keeping with the characteristic lightness of Cantonese cuisine, siu mei that is well-seasoned without masking the natural flavour of the meat is especially prized.

Homemade versus restaurant-made

When we crave siu mei, we’ll make lunch plans to get some at a nearby cha chaan teng. While it’s impossible to replicate the best restaurant-made siu mei, it’s actually easier than you think to make it at home! If you already make Cantonese dishes at home, you’ve probably already got some of the ingredients required, like five-spice powder or Shaoxing wine. 

A quick online search will bring you a lot of at-home recipes that are definitely worth a try—we really like the video on how to make barbecue pork from the Youtube channel Made with Lau. Host Lau Chung-sun, who worked as a chef for 50 years, shows viewers how to produce delicious, juicy char siu at home. 

“[Restaurants] don’t use as many ingredients as [home cooks] do,” Lau remarks, before adding that some unscrupulous vendors toy too much with the finishing glaze to add weight on the plate. Drawing on his 50-year experience as a chef, Lau shares how home cooks with more time on their hands can add fragrant ingredients to enhance the pork’s flavours while keeping the overall dish light.

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Is accessibility hurting quality?

Around every street corner, at fancy restaurants or siu lap shops with roast birds hanging in the window, you can get your hands on a hearty meal of siu mei. As much pride and nostalgia that humble and long-lived dai pai dong and cooked food centres bring us, they live under the shadow of newer food concepts with greater resources. 

Traditional siu mei shops are facing competition from convenient and efficient fast-food chains, as well as trendy and photogenic restaurants which prioritise presentation over taste for the “camera-eats-first” demographic. While it’s natural for food to evolve with time, we need to keep traditional methods—which paved the way for these newer concepts—alive.

To innovate or integrate?

Both locally and among overseas Chinese communities, siu mei has been adapted to cater to modern tastes. In Hong Kong, the sweet flavours of Cantonese barbecue pork have rippled to take various forms, from twists on twists like barbecue pork pineapple buns—which are variants of the original steamed char siu bao—to elegant fine-dining takes, like Mott 32’s rendition made with Iberian pigs and yellow mountain honey glaze.

Meanwhile, siu mei’s history among the Cantonese diaspora has resulted in its prominence in fusion cuisines like Chifa—Cantonese-Peruvian cuisine—and American-Chinese cuisine, which was shaped largely by Cantonese and Taishanese people immigrants. In New York, Chinese-American chef Calvin Eng has even created a char siu McRib at his restaurant Bonnie’s, showing just how easily these centuries-old Chinese flavours can fit into the context of American fast food.

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Gabrielle Caselis

Editorial intern

Strumming a few tunes on the guitar or trying to connect her Spotify playlist to the sound system is what you’ll find Gabrielle doing in most social situations. She is a homebody and the way to her heart is good food and good company. Apart from music, she spends her time watching and reading up on all there is to know about pop culture.

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