Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Homemade Char Siew

charsiew, originally uploaded by emily loke.

After a long weekend of trying unsuccessfully to finish off a wok full of Yam Rice, A. and I decided to give up on it for a while and make something different for dinner tonight. I’m not sure where the inspiration to make char siew (Chinese bbq pork) came from, but ever since last summer when A. flew down to Singapore to meet my parents, he’s been tirelessly trying to recreate what he calls “the only way to eat pork”.

His obsession with char siew manifested after his first encounter with Geylang’s Village Wok. Geylang, Singapore’s official red light district, is home not only to rows of doorways strung with red lanterns, but also to some of the best hawker food in the country. The porcelain-skinned, leggy Chinese beauties who walk the streets there are strong lures for tourist philanderers, but the locals go there for the real gems – the noisy, cramped little food stalls that either line Geylang’s neon-lit main strip, or are secreted away between secluded sin inns and sleazy karaoke joints. Village Wok, a brightly-lit, breezy restaurant, is located slightly off the main drag and is patronized mainly by large, boisterous families as opposed to the unlikely couples you would see in most other eateries in the area.

While Village Wok offers an extensive variety of “house specials”, the only reason I ever make the trek out to Geylang is for their char siew, which is made daily and is known to sell out hours before closing time. The bbq pork there, incredibly tender and caramelized to a dark brown, bears no resemblance to the bright red variety other hawkers sell. One taste was enough to get me hooked on the slightly sweet, smoky flavour of their char siew, praised highly by many food critics who claim that this is the way the dish should taste. It was only natural that when A. showed up, Village Wok was one of the first places I took him to, and he’s been addicted ever since.

Problem is, since we don’t live in Singapore, we don’t get to go to Village Wok nearly as much as we’d like, and have decided - after taste-testing char siew from every Chinatown restaurant - to try to recreate the pork ourselves. It’s really more A.’s obsession/project than mine, and he’s turned up some great results so far, though all have sadly fallen short of his very high, Geylang-induced standards. Tonight’s attempt was made using a powder mix we found in Chinatown. We rated it good overall, but that was after dumping in half a cup of sugar to neutralize the overpowering sour-salty taste it started out with. After an hour of toiling, A. managed to turn the pork into very good char siew, and though it definitely wasn’t what they serve at Village Wok, it was tender and flavourful and just sweet enough…though I suspect our quest for perfect pork has only just begun.