As you know from last week’s review of frozen Asian dumplings, I’m on a bit of a Trader Joe’s jag. Another one of their Asian products that’s intrigued me lots has been their Chinese-Style Barbecue Seasoned Pork. That’s one big mouthful of a product name (not very catchy!) but ever since I spotted the item in the Fearless Flyer months ago, I’ve wondered if the pork could be used in Asian dumplings such as steamed and baked buns (bāo/bau) and fried sticky rice dumplings (xián shuǐ jiǎo/haam sui gok). Char siu pork is also one my favorite add-ons in wonton noodle soup, and I love to stuff some in Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches.
How good is the pork? Can I recommend it for cooks who don't have the time to make their own or access to a Chinese barbecue shop? What can be done with the pork? Trader Joe’s does not identify the pork as Cantonese char siu pork but the orange-red coloring and thin long slabs of meat gave the pork’s identity away. The Chinese character printed on the label, 豬 (zhū) means pig, hog, swine. There was nothing about it being chā shāo/char siu pork (叉燒), which literally means fork roasted as the pork pieces are typically suspended on hooks during the roasting process to evenly expose the meat to the heat.
So I bought a package, which was tucked in amongst the marinated meats in the refrigerated section at my local Trader Joe’s. Once home, I opened up the package and found the pork to be nice and fatty. That brought me great hope. I cut 1/4-inch-thick slices and heated them in a skillet and toaster oven. Upon tasting the meat, I found the pork to be tender but bland. None of the sweet-savory-garlicky goodness of my homemade char siu pork. The odd orange-red color came from lycopene (the stuff that makes tomatoes red) and it bled a bit in the skillet and oven as the pork fat was rendered. At many commercial Chinese barbecue shops, the coloring comes from food coloring. Trader Joe’s uses no preservatives or artificial ingredients, a great plus, and the lycopene didn’t bother me as much as the lack of taste.
To borrow from Food Network's Sandra Lee, I took a semi-homemade approach to figure out how I could improve Trader Joe's Chinese-style barbecue pork and turn it into decent Cantonese char siu pork! Here's what I found:
Keys to Transforming TJ’s Chinese barbecue pork
After futzing with the pork several times, I realized that one key to doctoring up Trader Joe’s Chinese barbecue pork is to give it some sweet oomph either by way of Indonesian kecap manis, a type of soy sauces that has a molasses-like quality and wonderful sweetness. I typically combine kecap manis (one of my favorite Asian stealth ingredients) with saltier regular soy sauce and/or salt when I prepare roast or grill Asian-style meats. The sweet soy sauce lends a rich mahogany color in addition to producing a sweet-savory flavor. The pork itself was salty enough so there wasn’t a need for extra regular soy sauce or salt.
Kecap manis is sold at many Chinese markets in the Southeast Asian/Malaysian food section. The Bango brand (look for the bird) is my favorite. Without the kecap manis, mix molasses with light (regular) soy sauce (e.g., Kikkoman) in a 1:1 ratio.
Second, I learned that sprinkling in a bit of Chinese 5-spice powder imparted the right aromatic notes. Not all of the spice blends are the same and the best commercial brand of Chinese 5-spice powder that I've found comes in a glass bottle and is produced by Wu Shing company. Sold at Chinese markets, it is sweetly perfumed by fennel and star anise. Look for Wu Shing brand but read the ingredient list well because there are several blends of Chinese 5-spice.
Third, slicing the pork is the best way to add flavor to it. If you try rebaking the whole pieces of meat, it may dry out and you won’t get enough flavor into the pork anyway.
So if you’re not about to make your own char siu pork or buy some from a Chinese barbecue shop, Trader Joe’s Chinese-style Barbecue Seasoned Pork is a great option. It won’t be the best (it’s not like Trader Joe’s is promising that), but it’s a darn good shortcut approach. You just have to work with it a bit! Here's the technique and shortcut recipe:
Quick Char Siu Pork
Makes about 1/4 pound
4 to 5 ounces of Trader Joe’s Chinese-Style Barbecue Pork, sliced across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick pieces
2 to 3 teaspoons kecap manis, or combine molasses with light (regular) soy sauce in a 1:1 ratio
1 pinch Chinese 5-spice powder
1. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over high heat.
2. Add the pork (you don’t need oil) and when the pork starts to sizzle, add the kecap manis (or dark soy sauce) and sprinkle in the Chinese 5-spice powder.
3. Stir, let cook for about 30 to 45 seconds, then stir again. Repeat for about 2 minutes until the pork has acquired a mahogany glaze and a little char here and there.
4. Turn off the heat and set aside to cool a bit before using. Use the pork as is or cut it into smaller pieces (matchsticks or diced cubes) as needed for your recipe.
- Review of Trader Joe's frozen Asian dumplings
- Banh mi sandwich recipe (on Vietworldkitchen.com, my other site)
- Quick Wonton and Chinese barbecue pork noodle soup recipe
What kinds of things have you done with TJ's Chinese barbecue pork? If you've tried it, share your opinion and experiences.