To that end, I adapted a few recipes I found online and made various adjustments to achieve the results I wanted -- with great success! I'm happy to say that this attempt resulted in cha-siew that is very close to version you'd get in a Cantonese BBQ restaurant.
Proper cha-siew is traditionally made with maltose, which is malt sugar. According to Wikipedia, it's half as sweet as glucose and one-sixth as sweet as fructose. If you only needed sweetness, maltose might not be necessary, but it also adds a very specific sheen and gloss that substitutes like honey just can't duplicate. The texture of maltose is extremely thick -- it's about ten times thicker than honey; it's hard to get a spoon into it, and when you pull it out, it peaks and hardens very quickly. So if you can find it, I'd recommend using it over a substitute. I found a small tub of maltose next to the honey at my local 99 Ranch.
The first time I made cha-siew, I used pork leg. This time, I used pork butt (which is a cut from the shoulder... yeah, I don't know how these names happen). They both worked fine, though if pushed I'd say I liked the leg better. Maybe. Anyway, either works fine. Just don't use pork loin, which is less tender and flavorful, and less forgiving when you cook it.
- 1lb pork butt or leg, sliced horizontally into 1 1/2-inch hunks
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2½ tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1 1/2 tbsp maltose (or honey if you must)
- 1 tbsp Chinese rose wine ("mui guay lo")
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp 5 spice powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 6 drops red food coloring (optional)
- Wash the pork and remove skin and really large chunks of fat.
- In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients except for the pork and the food coloring. Heat the marinade only until the sugar (and maltose, if using) dissolves. If it gets too hot, cool it to room temperature. Add food coloring, if using.
- Put the pork in a container that fits it snugly (I just used the plastic bag that it came in from the butcher's), then pour the marinade on top. Let this marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Try to ensure that all the surface areas get some marinade.
- Remove the pork from the fridge about 40 minutes before cooking, to allow it to return to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 410°F.
- Line a roasting pan with foil (for easy clean up). Place a wire rack on top of the foil. Lay the pork on the rack. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.
- Pour the marinade into a medium saucepan, remove the chunks of garlic and heat to boiling, then keep simmering at a low heat to reduce the sauce. It's been sitting with raw pork so you want to make sure to kill all the microbes. Dirty foam will float to the top; skim this off and discard.
- After roasting for 15 minutes, baste the pork with the marinade and turn it over. Reduce the heat to 360°F and roast for another 15 minutes. (If you chose to use tenderloin despite my dire warning not to, it might be done now.)
- Baste the pork without turning and return to the oven for another 10 minutes. In the last 4 minutes, put the pork under the broiler, 2 minutes for each side, basting each time. That will give it a nice, pretty charred look that's characteristic of cha-siew.
- Remove the pork from the oven. By now the foil will be covered with raised black bits and you'll be very glad you used it. Baste both sides of the meat again with the reduced sauce, and let it sit on the wire rack for 10 minutes undisturbed before slicing. Serve with the sauce.