Cantonese BBQ (Eating) Master
A few weeks ago I attempted to make char siu (bbq pork) for the first time using a premade marinade and a single loin chop. For months, my parents had been raving about making it, how easy it was to buy a strip of pork shoulder and produce a flavourful result using this marinade. My dad became such a pro at homemade char siu, that my friend and I stopped in our tracks the moment he sent me a picture of one of his creations–perfectly red, charred, and shining in its juiciness–eliciting an excited response from us and utterances of wishing we could eat it then and there...while we were in the middle of viewing the Venice Biennale.   

So one day before consumption, I plopped my pork loin chop onto a plate and proceeded to slather it with a few tablespoons of the sauce. Uncovering the jar, I was met with such an intense and familiar smell of molasses and garlic that I swore when I opened my eyes I would have discovered that I had apparated home. After marinating for 24 hours, I put the chop onto a foil-lined pan and roasted it in the oven, and once done, with the oven off, I coated it with a layer of honey while it rested in the residual heat–a key to achieving the crust, according to my dad. Looking at my finished product, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. There wasn’t a crust but I didn’t want to cook it further and potentially dry it out. So I took it out, sliced it evenly and served it with a side of rice drizzled with sweet soy, and stir-fried bok choy and rainbow chard. The classic char siu taste was present, it wasn’t overcooked, and its fatty ends were delectable, but it wasn’t real char siu. My parents had lots of questions about it over the phone, and all I could say was: 

“It wasn’t red.” 

Flashback to bébé Natalie; my dad has just picked me up from my grandma’s house after elementary school. My eyes are crystal clear in these early glasses-less years and I am light-hearted, a sixth member of the Spice Girls in my fantasies, living life over a decade before the invention of the iPhone, when Google was just “goggle” misspelled. On our way home we stop at a produce shop to buy some vegetables like choy sum, gai lan, or canned straw mushrooms, and then we head to the Cantonese BBQ shop. We walk up to the entrance, its massive window a proscenium arch to an assortment of seemingly burnished roast meats–the juices and oils of which are performers in a glistening dance. Pushing the heavy glass door into the barebones shop, the few steps we take are in parallel to the counter, worn and off white, a tall plexiglass attachment acting as a splash guard. My eye line is just high enough to meet the thick wooden chopping block, dark and dewy, on which rests a wetting sponge, a folded damp cloth, and a huge cleaver. The scent of sweet sauce permeates the air, pushed around by a large fan in the corner. There’s one guy present at front of house, his clothes protected by an apron, and the sheath of blue vinyl gloves cover his hands. He approaches us expectedly. My dad asks for a strip of char siu in Cantonese and the man gets to work, turning to the window and unhooking one of the long segments of burgundy pork and bringing it to the cutting board. He then clasps the cleaver with intention and in mere seconds–bam, bam, bam, bam, bam–swiftly cleaves the char siu into equally sized slices. The pork is steaming hot, yet he unflinchingly scoops up the fanned out slices and deposits them into a styrofoam container, wets his still-gloved hand with the sponge to open a plastic bag and shoves the semi-shut box inside. I am transfixed until we say goodbye.

A 24-hour fare that pervades every meal and compliments every carb, Cantonese BBQ (specifically Cantonese roast meats) or siu mei (燒味) defies mealtime categorization. Char siu is probably the most versatile; it can double up the fragrance level in a fluffy steamed bun at dim sum or be draped in scrambled eggs for dinner. Ask for a cut of meat that is half fatty and half lean, for an al dente mouthful of succulent pork paired with its inevitably charred fat counterpart–a best of both worlds lip puckering bite. Silky soy sauce chicken can be scarfed quickly during a lunch break or consumed at a table surrounded by your family; wherever one eats it, it’s best paired with enough rice to soak up the excess sauce. Luxurious roast duck and its accompanying little tub of jus provides an intense savouriness to a bowl of noodle soup or plain steamed rice. In Hong Kong and feeling extra luxurious? Roast goose is a more robust version of duck; each piece lined with a single layer of fat under its thin and crispy skin. 
Pictured here: Roast duck and char siu platter at Four Seasons (London), cuttlefish and HK BBQ Master (Richmond, BC) roast pork, roast goose at Tai Hing (Hong Kong).  
Although not roasted, some places will have one of my all-time favourites, cuttlefish, that when sliced reveals stark white flesh in contrast to its bright orange exterior. Admittedly, while it is braised in a mixture of spices, it doesn’t taste like much, but its texture is textbook definition QQ, and that alone makes it addicting. Another favourite, roast pork contributes to the excitement of a wedding reception or provides warmth braised in a hot pot with taro. Roast pork never used to be up there for me until I found myself steps from Gain Wah everyday, and super late lunches of roast pork on rice became a part of my life. When done well, the meat should be tender, juicy, and sufficiently salty, the fat layer should be thin enough for comfortable consumption, and of course the crackling should shatter between your teeth even when it’s cold. Not many places can achieve all these characteristics consistently except for the aforementioned Gain Wah and “that place in Richmond underneath Superstore” as my parents call it, better known as Hong Kong BBQ Master
A simple meal of siu mei, rice, and vegetables, topped with ginger scallion sauce when desired, is a stellar showcase of the principles of Cantonese cuisine. During a time when I didn’t know any better, I declared Cantonese food boring until I learned to appreciate, what we call in my family, “clear” (清) foods–uncomplicated and light, with subtle seasoning that is meant to highlight the natural, fresh flavours of the ingredients. This, in combination with refined techniques, elevates each component in a Cantonese dish to star status. Char siu’s sticky sauce never outshines the texture and taste of the pork, and soy sauce chicken’s savoury warmth brought on by its braising liquid is meant to be the supporting role to its outstandingly silky flesh. Plain rice served alongside can be drizzled with a touch of sweet soy sauce, but even without it becomes increasingly fortified as it captures every morsel of juice. Accompanying vegetables are always prepared simply, either stir fried, steamed, or boiled to provide a refreshing, clean bite to counter the salt, sweet, and fat. 

Siu mei signifies a feeling of familiarity. It takes me back to being a kid at the bbq shop, to volunteering at the Chinese school Lunar New Year showcase just so I could live out a weird fantasy of hastily eating it out of a box in my elementary school gym, to buying a platter of it atop rice and eating it with my friends during a lunch break at work. There is no decorum to consuming siu mei; it’s laden with gelatinous fat, there’s bones and shards to spit out, and an unctuous bite of it begs for an immediate chaser of rice shovelled into your mouth–you either eat it alone or with people you don’t need to impress. While it’s also served in restaurants and at buffets in fancy Hong Kong hotels, there’s something basic about it–not basic in that way–but in a way that when eating it, your lips pucker, your chest flutters, and your eyes close, and you are reminded of the fundamentals of what makes food good.
Until next time,
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