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Color of Chinese Roast Pork

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  • Dave Feldman Sep 15, 1999 08:37 AM
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I'm pretty sure I know the answer to this, but JUST IN
CASE. What gives the pork in the roast pork served in
restaurants (particularly in bad restaurants) that
bright red color?

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  1. I believe it's from glazing/basting the meat with a
    substance called soyu, which is traditionally used in
    Chinese cookery. It's not food-coloring, if that's
    what you mean.

    8 Replies
    1. re: PastryChef

      hey, pastrychef

      Glad to see you back here! Do you and GourmetGuy work
      as a team? You both seem to fade in and out at roughly
      the same time!

      Anyway...I was told once that the redder the Chinese
      barbecue, the more nitrites in the meat. Any truth to
      that, you think?

      1. re: Jim Leff

        Did you ever notice that I never talk while Gourmet
        Guy drinks water?

        You've just gone way out of my league on the redness
        issue. Sodium Nitrite can certainly turn things red,
        so I suppose it's possible that it's involved in
        Chinese meat cookery, but it's not likely a
        traditional ingredient. I tend to think that most of
        these meats started fresh, without preservatives or
        coloring, and are just heavily brushed with this red
        soyu stuff. All I know is that I was walking in
        Chinatown once with a Chinese friend who knows his
        stuff and I asked about the red color and he said it's
        from soyu, a traditional Chinese ingredient that is
        some kind of soy extract.

        1. re: PastryChef

          I personally believe that most of the improbably-red
          looking color-particularly in cheap renditions-of char
          siu is red food coloring. A lot of the recipes found
          in a web search specifically include this as an
          ingredient in the sauce/marinade. There are other
          traditional ingredients, like soy (shoyu etc), hoisin
          or maybe honey or caramel which would give a brown or
          mahagony color, as well as reddish spices, five-spice
          and red fermented bean curd which would also give a
          reddish color if included. But the garish bright red
          or pink color one often must be the product of added
          food coloring.
          Re nitrites, they are used in curing and do give a
          pink color in cured pork products, like sausages, but
          char siu is a fresh, not cured, product, as PastryChef
          notes. There may be naturally occurring nitrites in
          this product (I dont know)but I doubt it would be
          added by the cook.

          1. re: PastryChef

            Tee-hee! PastryChef, you do realize that I drink a LOT
            of water! Glad you're back, too.

            Yeah, I've busy all summer with various projects, lots
            of food writing thither and yon, and now I'm diving
            gleefully back into the Chowhound waters.

            Oh, Maestro Leff, I just plugged your book to that poor
            soul who forgot to make dinner reservations for his
            girlfriend's birthday. Personally, I'd be very happy at
            any number of "your" restaurants on my birthday.

            A bientot!

        2. re: PastryChef

          P.C.,

          You are correct in your theory that my assumption was
          that the red was food coloring. This isn't a hard and
          fast rule, but there does seem to be an inverse
          correlation between the brightness of the pork and the
          seriousness of the restaurant (although I have to
          admit that I'm a sucker for bad roast pork, as long as
          it isn't overcooked).

          So we have Jen on the food coloring side, and you on
          the soyu side. Anybody else care to break the tie?

          1. re: Dave Feldman

            That's hardly a tie. She's clearly done some research,
            and I'm hardly doing more than guessing.

            1. re: PastryChef

              I *think* we have a winner.

              Just talked to a Chinese friend of mine, whose father
              has spent his life working in Chinese restaurants. He
              said the red stuff is: food coloring.

              1. re: Dave Feldman

                Say it ain't so!