Finding Love In Barbecue
Cantonese barbequed pork can be spiced up with spring onions and ginger
dipping sauce traditionally served with Hainan chicken.
(photo by Dominic Riley)
I walked past you as you lie in the window. You saw me stare. You saw me lick my lips. But I kept going. I didn't know what you had to offer. I didn't know that the next time I'd see you we'd fall in love.
Growing up in the United States, I was always turned off by you. Of course you were enticing, but I overlooked you, thinking there was something better out there. Could it have been your name? Two simple words, neither of which is exotic: barbecued pork. Kung Pao chicken and Mongolian beef sounded much more tempting, more foreign.
We always had barbecued pork on summer holidays, so what made you so different? The answer would come to me at first bite, roughly 7,200 miles away from my lonely dinner table in Los Angeles, the one that often showcased white cartons with fancy red characters and orange, leopard-like grease spots.
The setting: Central, Hong Kong. The place: basement of Tai Hing, a small restaurant on Queens Road. The dish: char siu fan (Cantonese for barbecued pork with rice, and three of the maybe 12 words I'd learned after a two-month stay in the territory).
I'd seen the pork hanging in the window - long strips of shiny dark red meat, marked with stripes of black char. The sight won me over. As many foodies say, "You eat with your eyes first!" Once my eyes stopped blinking, it didn't take long for my mouth to water and my stomach to grumble, maybe even bark.
I'd never used chopsticks so well. From that first taste, I knew Hong Kong was the place for me. And I knew that I'd never look at barbecued pork the same. An item that was once as attractive to me as a three-horned toad was now looking like BeyoncÃ©. What once ranked like the Raiders was now ranked like the Patriots, and I was its biggest fan.
Char siu (pronounced "cha syuh") literally means fork roasted. Strips of boneless shoulder-cut pork are skewered and roasted in an oven, or over an open flame. The marinade, which gives the pork its unique Asian flavor and dark red color, consists of dark soy, hoisin and oyster sauces, five spice-powder and red wine. A simple honey glaze gives it that glisten that often turns heads. If prepared right, the meat should be tender, moist and extremely irresistible.
To amplify the taste of char siu, I discovered I could top the pork with the spring onion and ginger dipping sauce that's commonly served with Hainan chicken (poached Cantonese-style chicken). This sauce eventually became my Cantonese ketchup. If I wasn't concerned about high blood pressure, I'd eat this sauce by the spoonful. It is prepared by adding fresh, grated ginger and diced spring onion to warm oil and salt. The mix of the sweet pork and salty sauce will bring any grown man to his knees (I know I'm not the first!)
So where can you poke your chopsticks through some char siu in Los Angeles? I'd recommend Sam Woo Chinese BBQ. There are about half a dozen locations in the Los Angeles area, but I go to the one in Chinatown. Perhaps I chose that location because I thought I'd get the best pork and be able to reminisce about Hong Kong in an area that looks surprisingly familiar. And for only $6, I wasn't disappointed!
But just in case, I have Cathay Pacific and my friend in Hong Kong on speed dial if I have to make a turnaround flight to get the real thing. Wait. Not in this economy. I'll settle for Sam Woo instead - and maybe that's the closest I'll ever get to BeyoncÃ©.