Before this post runs away from me, as so many of them do, I’ll just start by saying: if you’re here for the recipe, alone, I know this looks like a crapload of ingredients and steps, but I beg of you – don’t be intimidated. The allure of these bowls lies in their lovingly forgiving simplicity. And that is to say, you can do very little right with them and still do very little wrong, if you know what I’m saying. It’s a beautiful thing.
And now for the detour.
My love for swine is no secret — to the point that it’s represented here in titular glory (ha), though I’m never quite sure if I’m eating the pig or I am the pig — or maybe, in a move that’s as cannibalistic as it is poetic, it’s both. But that’s no matter. The bottom line: is porcine. And there may be no greater single expression of porky perfection than the Chinese barbecue variety known as char-siu.
Growing up, no trip to the Chinese market was complete without a styrofoam container heavily laden with charred, fatty morsels of roughly chopped char-siu, freshly unhooked from its place in the butcher’s clear locker of lacquered and roasted miscellany: ducks, hogs and chickens, all awaiting their turn on the inches-thick butcher block. My mom was well-versed in ordering a length of pork that was neither too lean nor too fatty. And on the ride home, I’d untie the fiercely knotted pink plastic grocery bag (seriously, Chinese ladies, why you gotta tie those suckers so tight?), slide out that styrofoam tray, hot in my lap, and claim for myself the sticky burnt ends — a treat still unsurpassed after all these years of sneaky car-snacking.
Tucked into a steamed bun, or piled over hot rice alongside a few wobbling cubes of tofu — this is what pork memories are made of.
Except when it’s chicken.
Yeah, hold the <phone emoji>, I know.
While it might seem that blasphemy hath befallen my ode to pig, I implore you to allow me this slight variation in the name of convenience. Because, while I don’t always have a pork roast stashed away for a rainy day, I almost certainly have chicken thighs (thanks in no small part to Costco’s organic poultry offerings). And chicken thighs, as any good little (meat eating) Asian will tell you, are very good eats.
Like much of the Pinterest community, I’ve had Bee’s recipe for char-siu on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until Steph posted these ridiculously accessible bún bowls a couple weeks ago that I felt a nagging desire to put Bee’s recipe to work. Rice noodles topped with glistening hunks of char-siu, I decided, would be ridiculously mind-blowing at best and a summer iteration of a childhood comfort food at worst. It was win-win.
But with nary a pork roast in sight, and very little desire to crank my oven to roasting temperatures in the middle of summer, I compromised (nay, improvised) with juicy dark meat chicken and a quick trip under the broiler to sticky up that classically sweet and savory char-siu glaze. I also swapped out some of the less accessible ingredients (maltose and Chinese rose wine) for equally suitable pantry staples (coconut sugar and sweet sherry). In one of my dorkiest moves to date, I even ditched the telltale red food coloring for an eensy slice of fresh beet, which lends just the faintest magenta hue to an already richly colored glaze.
When all was said and done, good things happened, I promise you. They will happen for you, too.
Many thanks to Bee for allowing me to obsess over — and then marginally blasphemize — what is a truly lovely recipe for what I consider to be a most nostalgic food. And to Steph, whose hot búns had me salivating totes inappropes. (She’s also largely responsible for the ratio of flavors in the fish sauce dressing that accompanies these guys.)
Feel free to amend this recipe to your taste, doing away with the wispy greens altogether for a heartier meal, or adding tomatoes, bean sprouts or any number of veggies if you want a bowl with more texture and crunch. As I mentioned above, it’s hard to go wrong.
Char-Siu Chicken Bún Bowls
By Emily Stoffel
Assembly/prep time: 15 mins (aside from chicken) | Serves 4
- char sui chicken thighs (recipe below)
- 3-4 bundles of bún (rice vermicelli)
- 1 large English or Armenian cucumber, seeded and sliced into matchsticks (I used an Armenian cuke, so cool and slightly sweet)
- 1 large carrot, peeled into strips and thinly sliced
- 3-4 generous handfuls salad greens
- finely crushed peanuts, unsalted if you’ve got ‘em
- thinly sliced scallions
- thai fish sauce dressing (recipe below)
Cook vermicelli according to package directions. Divide among bowls along with salad greens. Top with chicken, cukes, carrots, peanuts, scallions and a generous amount of fish sauce dressing. Enjoy!
Char-Siu Chicken Thighs
Adapted from Bee
Cook time: 10 mins sauce, 20 mins chicken + marinating
Note: Just because I’m putting these guys on noodle bowls doesn’t mean they are confined to that treatment. I would be only too happy eating many piles of this chicken set atop hot rice with a sunny fried egg or tucked into a steamed bun. Eeeeeeeeeee!
For the chicken:
- 1-1 1/4 lbs (about 4-5) boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 1/2 tablespoons light cooking oil
For the sauce:
- 1 1/2 tablespoons coconut sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
- 1 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce (wheat-free if GF)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce (wheat-free tamari if GF)
- 1 tablespoon sweet sherry wine
- 3 dashes white pepper powder
- 1 thin slice fresh beet (for color, optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Combine all sauce ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer, bruising beet slice a bit with a wooden spoon. Cook until coconut sugar is fully dissolved and sauce has thickened and looks nice and shiny (it’ll yield somewhere around 1/2 cup sauce, depending on how far you take it). Set aside to cool. Discard (or eat!) beet slice. (I ate it, but that probably goes without saying.)
Add chicken thighs to a large zip-top bag along with 2/3 of the char-siu sauce and massage the contents thoroughly to combine. Marinate in the fridge overnight. Add 1 1/2 T cooking oil to the remaining sauce, stir or whisk to combine, and refrigerate.
The next day, bring marinated meat and reserved sauce to room temperature. Preheat broiler.
Broil thighs a couple inches from flame for 5-6 mins per side or until just cooked and caramelized in places. Brush thighs with additional sauce and broil an additional minute or two until deeply caramelized.
Brush chicken with yet another layer of sauce (if desired), slice into pieces and serve over your noodle bowls or hot rice.
Thai Fish Sauce Dressing
Adapted from Stephanie
Makes 2 generous cups
Note: This dressing was highly influenced by the can-do-no-wrong-whatsoever-in-my-book Stephanie. My love for her creations is all-consuming. The herbs I used here brighten the sauce in such a pretty way, but you could easily do away with them and perk things up with a generous squeeze of lime juice if that’s what you have around.
- 1 3/4 cups hot (not boiling) water
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 1/4 cup coconut sugar
- 2-3 T finely chopped fresh herbs (I used a combo of cilantro, mint and lemongrass, but Thai basil would rock, too)
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 1/4 tsp grated ginger
- good squeeze of sriracha
Combine all ingredients in a jar or sealable container and shake well until coconut sugar dissolves. Adjust for taste adding another drop or two of fish sauce for salt, coconut sugar for sweetness and sriracha for heat, as needed.
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