Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Daring Kitchen: Cha Sui & Cha Sui Bao

I was absolutely stoked about this month's Daring Cooks challenge because a) much like Sara from Belly Rumbles, my family and I also regularly go to Yum Cha for Sunday brunch (our favourite haunt is a place called Plume in Doncaster, Victoria) and b) Cha Sui Bao (or Cantonese BBQ pork buns) really and truly are one of my favourite Yum Cha dishes, at least, in steamed form. Sadly, I rarely get to try them because nobody else in my family likes them, and I can't eat an entire basket of them on my own :(

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2011 hostess is Sara from Belly Rumbles! Sara chose awesome Char Sui Bao as our challenge, where we made the buns, Char Sui, and filling from scratch – delicious!

Now, as anyone who has ever read my interpretation of the Daring Cooks challenges will know, I am in the habit of doing things in a fly-from-the-seat-of-your-pants way. This month, I was determined to get it right. I mean, REALLY determined.

But then two things happened.

One, my friend Kaye conned me into doing the Kokoda Track Memorial ("1000 Steps") walk as training for the hike that I conned her into doing over Christmas. I figure fair's fair, but it did cut into my dough-making time.

The second thing that happened was that Christmas shopping/shopping for hiking/doing washing/unpacking my precious boxes of cookbooks freighted from Adelaide so that I could start making (and freezing) biscuit dough for next weekend's Christmas baking/making biscuit dough/doing some preliminary packing for the nightmarish quinella of working week-flying interstate for Christmas-going on a hike-going camping-going back to work took longer than expected *draws breath*

Exhibit A - the kitchen floor, where my life exploded in a haphazard fasion:

(Exhibit B would be my credit card statement, which is somewhat bruised and battered)

But you know what? Given that I work full time (not in the Australian definition - 38 hours a week - but ACTUAL full time, which normally runs at 50-60 hours per week), plus have a 3 1/2 drive at the start and end of every week, plus have regular social commitments in three states, I think I'm doing pretty well to keep up with these challenges!

So whilst I did manage to marinate the pork overnight (showing uncharacteristic organisation skills coupled with determination and commitment to do this recipe right), I ran out of time for dough making and cheated by using pre-made wonton wrappers instead. But hey, if I was a REALLY horrible person, I would have bought a packet of the frozen buns and **pretended** that they were my own creation! But that's not how I roll. If I cheat, I declare it. None of this sweeping it under the rug business. Like here - the post where I coined the phrase "Betty Crocker Cheat" (except that I'm sure someone else has used the phrase before, but it's the first time **I've** come across it). And I think that being a Betty Crocker Cheat is okay once in a while. Like today.

Cheating owned. Wonton wrappers, generally available in your supermarket dairy case next to the "fresh" pasta.

The marinating part in itself was an adventure, because, true to form, I had to improvise. I was absolutely convinced that we had both oyster sauce and hoisin sauce and OH MY GOD THAT'S WHY IT DIDN'T TURN OUT THE RIGHT COLOUR!!! I totally forgot to put the Pillar Box Red food colouring in. Which, by the way, I actually have in the cupboard, dagnammit!

Anyway, back to my story... hunting through mum's cupboard of sauces and condiments lead me to discard, amongst other things, three old bottles of tomato sauce (one home made, one normal store-bought and one erroneously-purchased tomato AND onion sauce, the first two of which had turned a terrifying brown colour and the third of which was just plain wrong); two bottles of herb vinegarette (one of which I had made as part of a craft stall in Year Three (that's back in 1991, for those playing at home! Yes, mum keeps condiments for twenty years. In this case I suspect it was a sentimental attachment. To a bottle of herb vinegarette...)); a tetra-pak of Campbell's liquid fish stock that was Best Before 2002 (normally I ignore BB dates but in this instance I was happy to make an exception!); and an old (BB March 2000) jar of home-brand Nutella that had obviously made it through a few scorching hot summers because the fat had come out of it, was sitting in the bottom of the cavity left by dipping bananas in it (yes, really. You should try it! You microwave the jar for 20 seconds at a time until it's the right consistency and then dip the banana in... no wonder I was a porker...) and had gone rancid. True story!

But no oyster sauce, and no hoisin sauce. Which makes me think that I actually have them in my cupboard back in Adelaide...

So, once again, I will copy out the recipe and annotate where I diverged from it. Nobody's surprised by that, are they. <-- statement, not question

BBQ PORK (Cha sui):

1 pork fillet/tenderloin - 2-3lbs (I used a tray of those nicely trimmed pork fillets from the supermarket, about 500g worth)
4 large cloves of garlic, crushed (check!)
1tsp ginger, grated (check!)
1tbsp peanut oil (once again I fell into the Adelaide/Melbourne trap, so used vegetable oil instead)
1+1/2tbsp maltose (you can substitute honey - I did!)
1+1/2tbsp honey (check!)
2tbsp hoisin sauce (I used half a tbps of Worstershire sauce because it needed using up)
1tbsp dark soy sauce (I used 1+1/2tbsp, plus water as below - don't ask me whether it's scientifically correct, but I always assumed that light soy was a watered-down version... perhaps I ought to have Googled that...)
1tbsp light soy sauce (I used 1tbsp water)
1tsp oyster sauce (I used fish sauce)
1tbsp shaoxing cooking wine (I never intended to buy this because it said you could substitute cooking sherry, and where you can substitute cooking sherry you can also substitute a mixture of brown vinegar and sugar, or so my mum tells me! So I used 1tbsp of brown vinegar and a little over a teaspoon of brown sugar)
1/2tsp ground white pepper (I used black... I know, I know!)
Pinch of salt (check!)
1/2tsp 5-Spice powder (check!)
1/2tsp sesame oil (check!)
1/2tsp Pillar Box Red food colouring (as discussed, oops...)

Trim pork loin of the yucky bits and slice lengthways so you have 2 long pieces, then cut in half (or, if you're me, buy a tray of ready-cut pork fillets because that's what the supermarket stocks). By cutting the pork into smaller pieces to marinate you will end up with more flavoursome cha sui (check!). If you want to leave the pork in one piece you can do this too.

Combine all other ingredients in a bowl and mix well (check!). The instructions say you should heat maltose in the microwave a little to make it easier to handle. I was using honey so it wasn't a huge deal, plus I like to put too much on the spoon, knowing that not all of it will come off, and then lick the spoon :)

Cover pork well with 2/3 of the marinade. Marinate for 4 hours/overnight. Refrigerate the remaining marinade - you will use it to baste the pork.

(I would just like to say how divine this marinade tasted, what with the ginger and garlic swimming about in it. And yes, I tasted it **before** I put the raw pork in it. But still, mmm, golden, glisten-y goodness... *drools*)

Preheat oven to 180oC and cover a tray with baking paper/foil and spray-oil a rack (not in the instructions, but I used my own smarts there) and place over the tray.

Sear pork in hot frying pan so it is well browned, remove from pan and place pork on rack in oven.

Bake approx. 15 mins (mine were quite thin pieces so baked for closer to 12 mins), basting with remaining marinade and turning until cooked through.

(Random trivia instalment: "bao" means "bag" (or wrapping, or container, or something that encapsulates something else - this can also be a less literal "wrapping", like the word for "to include") in Mandarin and, somewhat poetically, applies to buns, and I assume the same for Cantonese given that the Cha Sui is the bit we just made, and the bit we're about to make is buns!

Further random trivia: "shu bao" is, more or less, a school bag, "shu" meaning book and "bao" meaning bag. The character for "shu" looks like the leaves of a corner of a book with a pen and an ink splot, once you get used to looking at Chinese characters, anyhow! I also vaguely recall that "pencil case" is "qian bi bao", "qian bi" being "pencil", and the character for "bi" having the radical for "bamboo" in it. It really is quite a cool language. In its own quaint way I would almost call it romantic because it's so steeped with culture and history, but also logic and precision. It's been seven years since I studied it but I think I may have just fallen in love with the language all over again... 

This, by the by, is the word for school bag. See what I mean about the pages and the ink splot in the word "book"? And the second character is "bao", same as the "bao" in dumpling (in case you were unaware, there are multiples of each word in Chinese. You can differentiate by which of the four tones in which the word is articulated (flat, rising, dipped, falling), but there are still doubles of some words! Which is where context comes into it...). I always remembered "bao" because it looks like it's wrapped around something. You can use little stories like that to remember a LOT of Chinese characters. It's very helpful. Random trivia over!)


350g Cha sui, finely diced (yeah... I didn't weigh it... but I also made something different with the leftovers for mum for her dinner considering she can't have wheat, so that turned out okay!)
2 shallots (as in, those tiny brown onions you can get)
1 tbsp dark soy
2tbsp oyster sauce (I used fish sauce)
1tsp sesame oil
1/4c chicken stock
1tsp cornflour
1/2tbsp vegetable oil

Heat the vegetable oil in a pan. Sautee the shallots for 1-2mins until soft. Add diced cha sui to pan and stir.

Add soy and oyster sauces and sesame oil to pork mixture and fry for one minute.

Mix cornflour and stock together then add to pork mixture.

Stir well and keep cooking until mixture thickens, 1-2mins.

Remove from wok/pan and place in bowl to cool. Set aside until ready to use.

*    *     *      *     *

Now, if you want the bun recipe you can jump onto the Daring Kitchen website after the 14th of the month and it'll be there. Or you can do what I did and go off on a tangent...

*   *   *   *   *   *  <-- much nicer than the above attempt, don't you think?

So, what I did next was to roughly chop some baby... gai lan, maybe? It was on the same shelf as bok choy, anyhow, but looked more like spinach. Anyway, I did that (after washing it - it had grogans on it) and half wilted it in a frypan with a finely chopped, 1.5-2cm piece of fresh ginger. It seemed to be a lot more robust than the baby spinach I am accustomed to wilting, which is a good thing.

Then I got a wonton wrapper, put a little of the greens in it and a little of the pork, wet two adjacent edges, folded it into a triangle so the wet edges lined up with the dry ones and pinched it shut. I steamed them in the bamboo steamer I bought mum for Christmas back in 2005 when I was working for the devil a call centre selling mobile phones to defenceless elderly people in sales in order to make a few hundred extra dollars for my backpacking trip to Europe, AKA Nessfest 2005 (2 of us went, both Vanessas), which she (mum) to this day has not used. Explains why it still smelt like a Chinese supermarket! (I think the smell is camphor... hopefully it's not poisonous to humans in steam form...)

And then I sat them on little squares of baking paper in the steamer basket over boiling water (oh, BTW, I put the water on to boil at around the same time as I wilted the greens), 4 at a time, and steamed them until the wonton wrappers were soft. Sorry, no photos of the steamer so I'll give you a picture of the pre-steamed dumplings instead - you can see how the edges were pinched together:

Upon my first sampling I began to suspect that this style of wrapper is better suited to putting in soup, but I think they turned out okay. I just put them on to steam for a little longer.

They were tasty, anyhow!

If I had my time again I would a) make the proper pastry, b) cut the pork a little smaller, and c) put more stuff in it, like bamboo shoots or something with a bit of texture. And you know what? This is actually quite a simple recipe so I will probably make it again, hopefully with the proper ingredients this time!

Thankyou, Sara, for such a tasty challenge :)

Oh, also, I used the left-over pork and greens for mum's tea, and tossed them through thin rice noodles. And then after she'd eaten half of it I realised that soy sauce contains gluten, at least, the one I used does. D'oh!


  1. My understanding of the light vs dark soy sauce thing is that light soy sauce is the equivalent of extra virgin olive oil - it comes from the first fermentation or whatever. And dark soy sauce is from a later fermentation, and it's thicker - I think they add caramel to it?! Though there's a possibility that I made all of that up...

  2. Fun post! Sometimes you just have to run with an idea and own it...

  3. How innovative! I love the addition of the greens too! Well done!

  4. Your pork looks delicious, and what a great improvisation, to use wonton wrappers for the "buns"! Awesome job on the challenge.

  5. I like your idea of using wonton wrappers for the filling...they look tasty!

  6. A fantastic effort given, and some epic determination to get it done despite so many hurdles. Also glad to see I'm not the only one that was culinarily unprepared and went a bit substituting crazy!

  7. You do have a lot on too much almost, so I'm impressed you could even get the pork finished. And the final wontons do look levely. A great job on this challenge. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  8. What a busy life. When do you sleep? The wonton wrappers seem like a nice easy cheat for a pretty similar dish. Great job!

  9. So glad you had fun with the challenge. The marinade is nice :) Your pork looks great and I love your wontons.

  10. I liked your idea of using the wonton wrappers for the filling. Must have been yummy.


  11. The wonton wrappers seem like a great idea when time is tight
    Great job on this month's challenge

  12. Thanks for visiting my blog. It was my first DC challenge and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Using the filling for Wontons is a great idea...Cheers :-)

  13. Your dumplings sound so yummy, I want some now...


Give me the loves! Erm, I mean, comment here...