When I first switched to eating Paleo in 2010, the foods I missed eating the most weren’t pizza, pasta, or cake. Even then (waaaay back in the ancient, pre-Instagram era) I knew I could run Internet searches for Paleo-fied substitutes for those dishes. The stuff I craved the most—but couldn’t find adequate replacements for—were the Cantonese dishes of my childhood. To be clear, these weren’t the barely-recognizable Westernized versions of Chinese recipes; I’m talking about the plates of steaming-hot, perfectly seasoned meats and vegetables that my mom created in our family kitchen in Menlo Park, California, night after night.
My mom—cooking as usual.
My mother isn’t one to share her secret recipes. (Or, as she says with a shrug, “I don’t know exactly what I put in that dish. Just a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.” Thanks, mom!) But over the years, I’ve cracked the code on a number of my childhood faves, making them Paleo-friendly to boot. (Want examples? Check out the Salt + Pepper Fried Pork Chops and Chinese Chicken in a Pot in our upcoming Ready or Not cookbook, the Paleo Chicken Chow Mein in our One and Done bonus e-book, the Siu Yoke (Crispy Roast Pork Belly) and Walnut Prawns in our first cookbook, and the Wonton Meatballs and Watercress + Chicken Soup on this blog.)
Still, there were some family recipes that I’d long ago decided were impossible to make Paleo, let alone Whole30-friendly. Many of these dishes demanded non-compliant ingredients (like store-bought hoisin sauce, which contains gluten, sugar, and other non-Paleo ingredients) or required overly complicated steps. I’ll admit that my laziness kept me from attempting a few of these recipes, too.
One of these dishes kept nagging at me: char siu, Cantonese roasted pork lacquered with a sticky-sweet marinade. You know what I’m talking about: the bright red hunks of meat that hang in the display windows of Chinatown BBQ joints. I missed char siu like crazy—especially my mother’s version. As a kid, I would linger at my mom’s elbow every time she sliced up her char siu, panting like a puppy desperate to catch a scrap of leftovers. I wasn’t subtle, and refused to budge until my mom slipped me a juicy piece of pork right from the cutting board. Fueled by these happy food memories and the reminder that persistence pays off, I made it my mission to come up with Paleo version of this porky delight.
It took longer than I thought it would.
I’ll spare you the details of my many failed experiments (including the batch that looked amazing, but literally stunk like skunk), but I’m happy to report that after weeks of testing, I finally came up with a char siu recipe that garnered unanimous approval from my finicky kids, my visiting in-laws, and even the pickiest eater in the family: ME. My Paleo version of char siu is even Whole30-friendly if you use fruit-sweetened jam and leave out the honey!
Note: It’s important to use a high-quality, 100% fruit jam in this recipe. I buy St. Dalfour brand (it’s not a sponsor—I just like the stuff, and it’s pretty widely available), and its plum, apricot, and peach spreads work equally well in this recipe.
No more jibber-jabber. Let’s make some Paleo char siu!
- ½ cup plum, peach or apricot jam, sweetened with fruit juice
- ¼ cup coconut aminos
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon almond butter
- 1 tablespoon honey (optional)
- 1 teaspoon Red Boat fish sauce
- ½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder roast
- 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (if using a finer grain salt, only use 1 teaspoon)
- 2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced (optional garnish)