As I’ve discussed in the past, I have a number of food intolerances that can result in some pretty severe eczema. As such, I end up avoiding dairy, eggs, nuts, some nightshades and some seeds. Basically, for ease of explaining to those in the know, I say that I eat a Paleo Autoimmune Protocol diet, as this protocol avoids all of the above, along with avoiding the foods usually avoided when eating Paleo – namely grains, legumes, refined sugar, processed “vegetable” oils (corn oil, soy oil etc.), and processed food. While it’s easier to eat this way when eating in my own home, it’s much harder to avoid all these things when going out to eat, or even eating with other family members. So, I made it my mission recently to re-create a Paleo Char Siu or Chinese barbeque pork (also known as 叉燒), so that I could eat this protein staple of Cantonese cuisine without the repercussions.
Now, my parents are both excellent cooks. My mom being more ‘by the book’ than my dad, who tends to wing things and create his own ‘fusion’ recipes, so the natural place to start was to ask them for their recipe. It turned out, that their recipe for char siu uses three different jars of sauces you’d find at the Asian market. And all of these sauces include sugar or corn syrup, nightshade and seed spices, amongst some questionable ingredients like MSG, and artificial flavor and color. (After all, even Chinese restaurant BBQ pork is day-glo red.) If nothing else, my parents’ recipe was a place to start, though – seeing the ingredients was a hint to what gives Chinese barbeque pork its sweet, yet savory taste. Make sure you get the right cut of pork! Pork tenderloin is too lean for true char siu, so you want a fattier cut like pork butt or pork shoulder. You may need to specifically ask a butcher for this cut, or better yet, it’ll be part of the cuts you get when you buy a whole or half pastured pig.
My adaptation tastes pretty darn close to the “real” thing – but, when I told my mother what ingredients I used, she stubbornly declared that it was not, in fact, ‘cha siu’. (I didn’t have my mom taste it though, so maybe she’d change her mind with a sampling). In any case, not being ‘real’ char siu is okay with me, because this version allows me to avoid things like a lot of seed spices that can inflame and irritate my gut and skin, and still tastes really really good.
A note of caution for anyone following the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP): some of the spices (white pepper, black pepper, and star anise) are in the ‘be cautious’ category, as they come from the berries and fruit of different plants but may be tolerated after the initial elimination phase. These spices do add a lot to the authenticity of the flavor, but the dish will still work without them. If you have no problem tolerating any spices, you can try using Chinese 5 spice powder instead of star anise. Sesame oil is definitely not AIP-compliant, as it is derived from seeds, but if you can tolerate it, I highly recommend including it, since it really adds to the flavor like nothing else seems to be able to replicate.
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Not my Mama’s Cha Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork)
2 lbs pork shoulder or pork butt (preferably, organic, pasture-raised pork)
¼ cup coconut aminos or wheat-free soy sauce
¼ cup local honey
1 tbsp sesame oil or avocado oil if AIP
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp cloves
½ tsp of ground star anise* (omit or be cautious, if AIP)
½ tsp black pepper* (omit or be cautious, if AIP)
½ tsp white pepper* (omit or be cautious, if AIP)
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
1 tbsp fish sauce
Preheat your oven to 325F. If your cut of pork shoulder or pork butt is too large, divide it into two equal sized pieces and place in a shallow baking dish.
In a mixing bowl, add all the other ingredients and stir until uniform in consistency.
Pour about ¾ of the marinade over your pork and let your pork marinate, covered, for at least two hours. (You’ll be reserving ¼ of your marinade for basting later).
Place the marinated pieces of pork on a broiling pan and bake for 30 minutes. While the pork is cooking, put the reserved marinade in a small saucepan and cook on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes, until the marinade is reduced to a thick sauce.
After 30 minutes of baking, remove the pork from the oven and pour about half of the thickened marinade over the pork and spread and baste the sauce with a basting brush. Broil the pork for about 5 minutes.
After 5 minutes of broiling, flip the pork oven and baste the other side of the cuts of pork with the remainder of the sauce. Broil the pork until it is slightly charred.
Remove from oven and allow to cool. Slice and serve with your favorite stir-fried Chinese greens.