Illustrations by Fan Shui-lun with research by Ashley Kung
Cantonese barbecue is a class act. For those who aren’t acquainted with it, the genre encompasses a motley of mostly air-dried roasted meats that errs on the sweeter side of things. But for many, it’s the texture that sets it apart.
“Cantonese roast meats are often a balancing act between obtaining the perfect external texture and perfect internal cooking of the meat,” says chef Johnny Lee, a Cantonese-American chef based in Los Angeles.
It’s blue-collar food, often consumed in no-frills diners with plastic stools, low tables, and a large fan in the corner.
“The marinades, flavor profiles, and diversity of textures make it exciting to eat.”
“The reason I love traditional Cantonese roast meat is because the marinades, flavor profiles, and diversity of textures make it exciting to eat,” Lee says, “especially compared to normal Cantonese cooking where the flavors are more subtle and natural tasting.”
In Cantonese, the term is siu mei (烧味), a catch-all to describe meats roasted on spits or over an open wood fire. The roast meat tends to be coated with a saccharine marinade—usually honey or maltose sugar—before being fully cooked.
Siu mei is a persistent culinary motif in Cantonese-speaking regions like Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong. It has also made its way to overseas Chinese communities, where the cuts can be spotted being air-dried behind glass walls. White rice tends to be the complementary carb of choice, but fresh egg noodles can be used as well.
Here’s our extremely comprehensive illustrated guide to the key dishes.
Char siu (叉烧)
Char siu is fundamentally pork and distinguished by its signature red hue, which ranges from a brownish red to bright pink. The name refers to the cooking method: char means fork in Cantonese, and siu means to burn or roast.
Before the pork is roasted, a mixture of honey, five-spice powder, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, red food coloring, and sometimes sherry or rice wine are used to season the exterior layer. This marinade gives char siu its distinctive red coat.
The cuts used for char siu can vary, but the common ones are pork loin, belly, shoulder, fat, and neck.
Soy sauce chicken (豉油鸡)
The key to soy sauce chicken, or si yau gai, is getting the right ratio of soy sauce down pat. A whole chicken is poached in an aromatic concoction of soy sauces (both dark and regular), sugar, salt, and water. A bit of star anise and ginger in the broth adds depth. The chicken is simmered in there until the meat reaches the right texture. The skin comes out a glossy caramel hue.
White sliced chicken (白切鸡)
White sliced chicken, or bak chit gai, is not quite roasted, but it is a staple at most siu mei places and is remarkably simple in composition. The chicken is marinated in salt and then poached in chicken broth with ginger. It’s then ladled out and immediately plunged in an ice water bath, which gives the skin a filmy texture.
The accompanying condiment, called geung yung (姜蓉), is a slurry of ginger, green onion, salt, and oil. Don’t be alarmed if the bones are slightly pink; bloody marrow is simply part of the experience.
Roast goose (烧鹅)
In Hong Kong at least, roast goose, or siu ngo, is practically a religious icon. Nearly everyone has their opinion on which place is the best, and it’s a staple of the local diet.
The geese are steeped in a saucy marinade of star anise, ginger, peppercorns, green shallots, cassia buds, cloves, and salt. The exterior is rubbed with a vinegar and maltose coating, which gives it its signature sweet taste. The poultry is then pumped with air, immediately poached, and then finally roasted.
Traditionally speaking, the roasting process is done in a charcoal furnace at a high temperature. The final product: an incredibly juicy poultry with a lovely finished skin.
Roast duck (烤鸭), or siu aap, is prepared in similar fashion.
Crispy pork belly (烧肉)
The secret to this dish, known in Cantonese as siu yuk, is the skin, which is punctuated with holes and covered with rock salt before the meat is roasted. The holes allow the crackling effect to happen.
The final product—layers of pork fat and meat stacked alternately on top of each other with a thin, crusty skin emanating a gorgeous brown-gold hue—is usually accompanied with bit of sugar or spicy mustard, which accentuates the bouquet of flavors and textures.
Cured pork belly (腊肉)
Usually eaten over rice, cured pork belly, or lap yuk, is similar to Western bacon but is soft and spongy rather than hard and crispy. That’s because Chinese bacon is cured in sunlight rather than smoked.
The appeal of the dish comes from its textural contrast of meat and fat. The meat is a bit chewy, while the fat melts in the mouth.
Roast spare ribs (烧排骨)
Roast spare ribs (siu pai gwat in Cantonese) are the sinewy and more hands-on sibling of the char siu. The meat is covered in a cloyingly sweet sauce where honey and soy are the foundations.
The ribs are smoked until they’re a gorgeous red-brown color with slightly charred edges. When done right, the meat should quite literally fall off the bones.
Roast suckling pig (烧乳豬)
A whole pig is usually eaten during special occasions and needs to be ordered in advance. The piglet is served spread-eagle across a platter, sometimes with red cherries in the eye sockets. The dish, known in Cantonese as siu yu ju, is a sign of prosperity, since not every family could afford a whole pig back in the day.
Like a lot of the barbecue items on this list, the roast pork is distinguished by the contrast of its crisp, maltose-glazed skin and juicy, tender meat parts. The pig is often served with fluffy wheat pancakes, with a bit of hoisin sauce and scallions to pair.
Orange cuttlefish (卤水墨魚)
Like white cut chicken, orange cuttlefish, or lo sui mak yu, isn’t a barbecued dish per se, but it is such a recurring staple in siu mei cuisine that we thought we’d include it anyways.
The dish is an orange cuttlefish, marinated in a bright brew of five-spice powder, scallions, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The orange color, by the way, comes from food dye.
The spice mix transforms an otherwise bland cut of seafood into an extremely dynamic dish.
Roast squab (炸乳鸽)
A squab is a pigeon, and in the Cantonese tradition, za yu gap, as it is called, is braised in a bowl of soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine, and spices before being roasted whole. A coat of hot oil is sometimes applied directly to the skin to create a crisping effect. To add a layer of sweetness, honey or maltose is brushed on top.
Pigeons are much smaller than their other poultry counterparts, and the meat tends to err on the leaner side of things.