Monday 7 December 2009

Cantonese BBQ - The Three Roasts

As Christmas nears, no doubt many of you are looking forward to roast turkey with all the trimmings. Well perhaps not, let's face it turkey is pretty dull and I wouldn't be surprised if you tucked into something else over Christmas.

Me ? I'll be lucky enough to be feasting on Cantonese BBQ or siu mei over the festive period. The Cantonese term siu mei translates as 'roast-flavour' and it encompasses all the wonderful roast meats you see hanging in Chinatown windows. Miles better than roast turkey, lamb or beef.

It's no contest really, in footballing terms its Celtic v Barcelona. The Sunday roast would be Celtic - loads of devoted fans but unlikely to win anything outside its own borders whilst Cantonese BBQ would be Barcelona – nuff said.

The most common siu mei are cha siu (bbq roast pork), siu aap (roast duck) and siu yuk (crispy belly pork) - these are collectively known as sam siu (three roasts) and pop-up everywhere in Cantonese cuisine. Dinner is incomplete without one of these roasts and imho it's also an essential side order with dim sum.

Siu mei also makes for a quick and easy one-dish meal when served atop rice, fried noodles or in soup noodles. It also pops-up in various dim sum, stir-fry, noodle and fried rice dishes. So without further ado, here is my guide to Cantonese BBQ with a round-up of places to where to track down the good stuff in London.

Cha Siu
This is usually listed as bbq roast pork or honey roast pork on menus and it's the most versatile of the three roasts. Not only is it eaten in its own right but you'll find it in dim sum such as cha siu bao and in dishes like Singapore Noodles and Young Chow Fried Rice.

Pictured is some take away from my favourite Chinatown haunt, Hung's (£5.50/portion). It's decent quality, not overcooked but with good charring outside. By the way, it's not the whole portion pictured, most of it was eaten.........

Many chefs have their own secret marinade recipe but common ingredients include honey, soy, five-spice powder and hoi-sin sauce. Sadly, many places use food colouring to give the outer coat of the cha siu a lurid red colour. I always found it funny that my Dad only used food colouring for the cha siu he sold but not the stuff he made at home.

Siu Aap
This is usually listed as Cantonese roast duck on menus and is not to be confused with Peking duck or that bastardised British creation, crispy aromatic duck. As such, it's not eaten with pancakes but instead it's served chopped on the bone.

Pictured is some take-away from Hung's (£7/half duck) and it's damn tasty with crispy lacquered skin and anise notes from the five-spice powder (ng hong fen).

The lacquer effect of the skin comes from a 'wash' consisting of hot water, vinegar and maltose that is used to coat the duck which is then hung for a few hours before roasting. Different chefs will also have their own secret stuffing mixes but these usually all include ginger, star anise and five-spice powder.

Siu Yuk
This is usually listed as roast belly pork or crispy belly pork on menus. There are no chefs' secret in terms of prep - the pork belly is simply rubbed with salt and five-spice powder and hung before roasting. Although, it's a simple dish to make, it can be tricky to get the crispy crackling right.

The siu yuk in the headline photo and above is from Gold Mine (£6.80/portion) – great five-spice flavours with crispy crackling. I hope you appreciate the effort I made in plating up the siu yuk and pak choi on top of steamed rice for the photo !

Other Siu Mei
Other siu mei include Cantonese roast goose (siu ngo), prepared in a similar way to roast duck. It's arguably more common than roast duck in Southern China but seldom seen in the UK. According to my Dad, British geese are too lao (mature??) and fatty for this dish.

Spare ribs using the same marinade as cha siu are also common – look for honey roast or bbq spare ribs on the menu. Although it's a braised rather than roasted dish, soy sauce chicken (si you gai) is often found hanging out with siu mei - the star anise scented soy sauce used to braise the bird really makes this dish.

The 'daddy' of siu mei though is bbq suckling pig (yu zyu), which is to Cantonese cuisine what Peking duck is to Northern Chinese cuisine. This is a popular banquet dish and you usually have to order it in advance. I love the contrast between the crisp crackling and the tender meat – pure heaven.

Where to buy Siu Mei in London ?
The best siu mei in Britain isn't found in London and nor is it commercially available. Whilst I'll be lucky enough to sample it over Christmas (thanks Dad!), my parents live 200 miles north of London. This means most of the time, I'm forced to get my fix eating out or more often than not as a take-away.

My everyday choice for siu mei is Hung's on Wardour St – pictured below is their scruffy but tasty fried noodles with mixed roast meats (sam siu chow mein). On spotting me taking a photo, the 'Auntie' manageress commented in Cantonese – 'You shoulda said you were taking a photo, I would've put some garnish on it' - priceless !

Despite my love of Hung's, I'm not claiming it's the best for siu mei in London or even Chinatown for that matter. What it does offer though is good value Cantonese BBQ that's as good as can be expected in blighty. I don't go to many other Chinatown places but Crispy Duck on Gerrard St is of a similar standard but it's been a while since my last visit.

Bayswater is the other part of London where you can track down siu mei and there's fierce debate as to who is the best on Queensway. Historically, Four Seasons was considered the 'BBQ King of Queensway' if not London but many consider Gold Mine to be better. I don't venture out to Bayswater enough to wade into this debate but I thought that the siu yuk at Gold Mine was pretty special. {Update - Jan '10, the siu yuk at Hung Tao was as good as Gold Mine's if not better.}

If a place has a good rep for dim sum then it usually follows that their siu mei is pretty good too - that’s certainly the case at both Pearl Liang and Phoenix Palace. I'm a big fan of the latter and imho their weekend lunchtime special of bbq suckling pig (£12.50/portion) is quite possibly the finest single siu mei dish in London.

I'd love to hear about your fave places for Cantonese BBQ, especially if I've omitted any obvious places or even better the not so obvious !


  1. A man after my own heart. New Fook Lam Moon is my rec, expensive but the best IMO. Tai Kai Lok comes second but portions are meagre and the cuts inconsistent. The gravy/sauce at Gold Mine is too sickly sweet and Four Seasons are geared towards non-Chinese eaters. Incidentally the best suckling pig comes from what was China China but thankfully trading again under a different name.

  2. I agree with you re: Hung's - it's my favourite. It's a shame you can't get roast goose, my mum asked a restaurateur why not and he said that for some reason or the other they weren't allowed (?)

  3. FL - thanks for the tips. I was gonna roadtest more places for this post but couldn't be arsed in the end. That said, I will definitely try New Fook Lam Moon. I hear what you say about Gold Mine, the sauce is sweet but it didn't detract from the quality of the roasting. Also as I went for take-away, I used my own soy. Interesting comments about Four Seasons - my old man was also none too impressed with their window display although to my eyes, I wasn't sure what was exactly wrong with their BBQ. Lastly, I believe China China is no known as Wanchai Corner and it's on my list.

    Lizzie - I've given some thought to the goose question. The breeds of goose in South China are very different to those in the UK. As such, the restaurateur may have been referring to the unavailability of the Chinese breed of goose in the UK.

  4. Siu yuk is one of my most favourite things in the WHOLE WORLD. especially when it's fresh and crispy. I haven't been to Hungs *SHOCK* but I promise I will!

  5. catty - I'll be happy to take you to Hung's in the New Year !

  6. Cannot believe that I still have not been to either Hung's or Gold Mine. My mission for early 2010, have added to my eating list!

  7. Helen - good to see that you're keeping an eating list going!

  8. I think I might have to take up Helen's idea of an eating list too! I only arrived in London in 2009 from Sydney and have found it very hard to find good quality Asian (or Oriental as UK calls it) food that suits my Cantonese tastes and doesn't cost me an arm and a leg!

    Only discovered your blog the other day and am looking to trying some of these places!

  9. Tracy - the overall standard of Chinese/Oriental cuisine in London isn't a patch on what you left behind in Sydney. That said, there are a few gems out there.