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Char Siu (叉烧) for the Broke, Homesick Soul

a plate of food with meat and vegetables

Growing up, the quintessential, Cantonese-style meal for all special occasions was siu laap (烧腊) at the local supermarket sitting at 11th and Washington Ave in South Philadelphia. Rows of roast ducks, pigs, and chickens hid behind a plastic display case complete with a butcher’s knife, a wooden board, and the butcher himself. But he was no ordinary butcher; he was a master.

In an interview about his new zine, Chinese Protest Recipes, Clarence Kwan said, “I think eating food from your heritage, boldly and unapologetically, is a form of protest that you can participate in three times a day.” It made me think back to bringing my non-Asian friends into the supermarket and making a beeline straight to the snack aisle lined with Pocky or those Hello Panda biscuits with the cream fillings, conveniently in the opposite direction of the siu laap display case. I was ashamed of the gruesome looks of siu laap, and I was ashamed of the siu laap master behind the case, oblivious to the years of practice to perfect the art of giving his community a taste of home at the affordable cost of $9.00 per pound. I was cherry-picking what I wanted out of Asian cuisine so I could seem more palatable to those who weren’t.

Now, there isn’t anything remotely close to siu laap shop within a 50-mile radius of my apartment. I have to resort to making my own.

I’ve never met anyone who grew up in an Asian household meet both of the following two scenarios: 1) having measuring cups in their family’s home, and 2) having fucking red fermented bean curd in their own apartment. I don’t check off either box. During my first semester living away from home and in my own apartment, I realized fairly quickly that my own appetite was dictated by the food I was making. I started gaining sovereignty over my own diet and making meals that reminded me of home, which improved my energy enough to power me through the rest of my semester. When I decided to make char siu (叉烧), arguably the best siu laap type, I wondered how I was going to pull off cooking myself comfort food and simultaneously doing justice to the cuisine I felt ashamed of years before. The answer simply was, I couldn’t. The simplest marinade for cha siu needed red fermented bean curd. It’s so niche that I would have found a siu laap shop before I found a jar of one of these at my supermarket. So I did what I imagined any siu laap master would do—make the most out of what I have and continue practicing the art.

What I love about Cantonese culture is that it is heavily dependent on oral communication and history; the language itself is hard to accurately record on paper because some words don’t have a precise written form. This makes for a hard time in the kitchen—lots of eyeballing (what do you mean you just know, ma?), but it’s easy to memorize to replicate later on. Taking a pack of pork shoulder, I unloaded my first marinade attempt using a regular spoon: 

- ½ spoon: sesame oil, black pepper, cooking wine, mirin;

- 1 spoon: soy sauce, hoisin sauce;

- 2 spoons: sugar, honey;

- 5 cloves of garlic; 

packed it overnight, set up a rack in the oven to 475ºF and roasted it for about 25 minutes on the first side, 15 minutes on the other side, glazed it with honey, and chopped it up with my chef’s knife on a cutting board. Several fire alarms throughout my apartment went off simultaneously, and there were lessons to be learned from the first try. Like I should be considering how thick the cut of pork is. Or the method in which I roast the meat. Or the cut of pork itself.

To have mastered siu laap is to know your community’s pain and translate it into comfort. It is knowing the correct method to steam, roast, salt, marinade, and dry out different meats. It is knowing that most siu laap masters of the diaspora never actually wanted to be siu laap masters in the first place, their hopes and dreams salted and preserved in their minds like the laap cheong on the hangers. To master siu laap as a poor, broke college student is to know your own pain and translate it into comfort. It is knowing that you are channeling your ancestor’s sentiment—one of being so far from home—symbolized by the longing of the familiar sweet, smokey, salty, and aromatic combination of fat and tender meat to cradle you in your family’s loving arms. It is knowing that when you are the embodiment of a culture with no true motherland, home is where you are most comfortable.

Anna Chiu Tran