Mom’s Chicken Char Siu is One of My Childhood Faves
Chinese char siu is one of my all-time favorite dishes. It’s absolutely crave-worthy – spiced, sweet, savory, & so juicy! – but I’m particularly fond of it because my Mom often makes it at home. While traditional Cantonese char siu is most often made with roasted pork, we also had char siu chicken pretty regularly throughout my childhood. I’m excited to share her recipe with you today!
With its uniquely spiced-yet-sweet flavor & iconic red hue, I always figured Mom’s char siu must be pretty complicated to make – but it’s not! Her 5-ingredient recipe uses pantry staples like soy sauce, brown sugar, & Chinese five spice to create a simple char siu marinade. From there, the chicken roasts in the oven until tender, basting in extra char siu sauce to create a savory-sweet glaze, & finishes under the broiler for perfectly caramelized & crispy skin. It’s crispy, succulent, & savory-sweet – everything there is to love about char siu pork, just with juicy chicken!
Aside from its amazing flavor, its versatility is why it’s a staple here at the PWWB house – the dinner options are seriously endless. Enjoy char siu chicken as-is with noodles or rice, OR toss it into a stir fry, tuck it into steamed buns…the options are endless. I guarantee you’ll LOVE it!
Char Siu Chicken Recipe Highlights
There’s nothing better than Mom’s baked char siu chicken! It’s…
- SAVORY-SWEET. A beautiful blend of savory soy sauce, sweet brown sugar, & warm spices gives this roasted chicken recipe an irresistible flavor that gets even better as it caramelizes in the oven!
- SERIOUSLY LOW-EFFORT. Making baked char siu chicken is much easier than you’d guess! 5 ingredients, 15 minutes of prep, & mostly hands-off cooking make for a no-fuss chicken dinner you’ll come back to again & again.
- A VERSATILE STAPLE. Enjoy it on its own or add it to fried rice, noodles, stir fry, steamed buns…pretty much any dish is better with crispy & caramelized char siu chicken!
At-home Chinese BBQ has never been easier! ♡ Read on to learn more about how to make Chicken Char Siu, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!
What is Char Siu?
Char siu is an iconic Chinese (specifically, Cantonese) dish traditionally made by roasting pork. This Chinese-style roasted BBQ pork is best known for its uniquely sweet-savory-spiced flavor, which comes from a char siu marinade typically made with Chinese five spice, soy sauce &/or hoisin sauce, & a sweetener like honey or maltose.
Char siu translates to “fork roasted,” a nod to the fact that the BBQ meat is traditionally skewered on long forks & roasted over an open fire. Pork shoulder or pork butt is often used to make it because it’s a hearty cut that stands up to roasting very well. As the meat roasts, it’s basted with even more char siu sauce – its sugars caramelize in the high heat, giving the juicy meat its iconic glazed finish.
So what’s char siu chicken then? This recipe uses the same ingredients & at-home roasting process we use for char siu pork, just with a different protein! Char siu chicken has the same savory-sweet flavors thanks to its marinade & also roasts in the oven until succulent & crisp. It’s an absolutely delicious alternative to pork!
A quick note! ⇢ Char siu is most easily recognized by its vibrant red color & shiny glaze. Traditional recipes use red bean curd or ground red yeast powder in the marinade to give the meat a natural red hue. Red food coloring is a quick shortcut for homemade char siu (this recipe included). You can skip the red coloring if you prefer – the char siu chicken will still taste amazing!
Start By Making Mom’s Easy Char Siu Marinade
Mom’s signature char siu sauce could not be easier to make. With just 4 key ingredients – all of which are probably already in your kitchen – it’s key to creating char siu chicken’s sticky-sweet flavor & texture. Plus, prep is super streamlined since the sauce plays double duty in this recipe – you use most of it to marinate the chicken, while some is reserved for basting as it roasts.
Note: Full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
Here’s what you need…
- Chicken – I prefer to use bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. The bone adds extra flavor & crispy bites of chicken skin are the BEST part. Feel free to use any cut you love most – more info below!
- Soy sauce – The savory component of the char siu marinade. For gluten-free char siu chicken, swap it out with tamari.
- Dark brown sugar – Traditional char siu recipes get their sweetness from honey or maltose, but my family uses dark brown sugar – a bit of Mom’s Hawaiian heritage shining through! Compared to honey, dark brown sugar creates a thicker char siu glaze with a richer caramelly flavor. It’s to die for!
- Chinese five spice – This spice blend typically includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, & star anise. Other ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, & black pepper are sometimes added to the mix. Look for it in the spice aisle of your grocery store – my go-to is Simply Organic’s Five Spice Powder.
- Garlic powder – For a little extra kick of aromatic flavor.
Full Recipe Directions, including step-by-step photos, are included in the Recipe Card, below.
Mixing the char siu marinade.
Simply whisk together the soy sauce, dark brown sugar, Chinese five spice, & garlic powder, then dilute it with a little water. You can also add a few drops of red food coloring (pictured) to create the iconic red hue of char siu glaze, but it’s totally optional.
Don’t forget! ⇢ It’s essential to reserve some of the char siu sauce to baste the chicken as it roasts, which creates the iconic glossy finish signature to traditional char siu. I recommend using about 1/2 of the char siu sauce to marinate the chicken & saving the rest for the roasting process.
Suggested Marinating Time
For best results, marinate the chicken for at least 12 hours or up to 3 days. Always aim for longer if you can. The more the meat soaks up the marinade, the more flavorful your chicken char siu will be.
How to Cook Sweet & Sticky Char Siu Chicken in the Oven
Marinating is the most time-consuming part of this recipe. After that, roasting char siu chicken is very simple – it only takes about 30 minutes & the oven does all the work!
Full Recipe Directions, including step-by-step photos, are included in the Recipe Card, below.
Prep for roasting. About 30 minutes before you’re ready to start cooking, take the marinated chicken thighs out of the fridge & place them on a wire rack over a sheet pan. Why? ⇢ Roasting the meat on the elevated rack allows air to circulate around the chicken as it roasts. This helps it cook more evenly & keeps the chicken skin nice & crispy. It’s an easy way to simulate the traditional Chinese “fork roasted” method at home.
Roast & baste. Roast the char siu chicken for 30 minutes, basting & rotating the sheet pan every 15 minutes. To baste, use a brush to generously coat the surface of the chicken with the reserved char siu marinade. Why? ⇢ Basting the chicken as it roasts creates a classic, thick, sticky-sweet glaze.
Optional: Finish under the broiler. This only takes a few minutes but it’s the perfect finishing touch! Place the char siu chicken under the boiler & cook until it reaches your desired level of caramelization. Why? ⇢ Finishing under the broiler creates charred, smoky caramelized edges that mimic the effect of cooking with open flame.
Easy Recipe Variations
Alternate Cooking Method: Grilled Char Siu Chicken
This char siu chicken recipe is also super easy to make on the grill. Perfect for summer months!
The secret is 2-zone grilling, which allows the chicken to gently cook over indirect heat & finish over direct heat for extra-crispy skin. While baked chicken char siu gets a pretty impressive sticky-sweet texture, it’s hard to beat a classic grill char!
Check the Recipes Notes, below, for step-by-step guidance.
Use Whatever Cut of Chicken You Love Most
I love bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs – they’re an affordable option with rich, juicy flavor & irresistibly crispy skin! – but you can use pretty much any kind of chicken for this recipe. Choose your favorite or grab whatever is available at the grocery store. Char siu chicken prep & cook times change slightly depending on which cut you use.
- Boneless, skinless chicken thighs – No need for a rack if you’re going skinless! Slice the boneless, skinless thighs before broiling to help them get even crispier.
- Chicken breasts – I recommend butterflying or pounding the chicken breasts flat before marinating. Chicken breasts roast more evenly with uniform thickness, which helps keep them nice & juicy. Skip broiling since chicken breasts are more prone to drying out.
- Drumsticks – This fun eat with your hands char siu chicken is perfect for backyard BBQs! Roast char siu chicken drumsticks using the same method as bone-in, skin-on thighs.
Refer to the Recipe Notes, below, for more guidance!
What to Serve with Char Siu Chicken
My Go-To Char Siu Chicken Dinner
This chicken is so flavorful that you don’t really have to serve anything too fancy with it. We like to slice it & serve it over rice with a quick & easy vegetable like sautéed bok choy or roasted broccoli. Be sure to finish with a drizzle of any leftover char siu sauce if you have some on hand!
Other Serving Suggestions
One of the best things about this recipe is that it’s incredibly versatile. You can use the roasted chicken to make tons of different meals for all kinds of occasions! If you want to mix things up, char siu chicken is also great…
- tucked into steamed buns. There’s nothing better than the contrast between pillowy-soft steamed buns & crispy, sticky-sweet chicken. Tuck it into bao & top with sesame seeds & sliced scallions. Or, try our favorite manapua (Hawaii-style char siu bao) using char siu chicken in place of pork.
- nestled in a bowl of ramen or saimin. A hot bowl of noodles just begs for a bit of char siu! Add a few slices on top of your ramen or nestle into a bowl of saimin (a Hawaiian noodle soup often served with char siu).
- in lettuce wraps. For a veggie-forward option, try subbing char siu chicken into these Grilled Chicken Bulgogi Lettuce Wraps. The savory-sweet flavors are similar, but the char siu adds next-level crispy texture!
- tossed into fried rice or stir fry. Add sliced or diced char siu chicken to fried rice or a veggie stir fry for a bit of extra protein.
- with a big bowl of noodles like Hawaiian-Style Chow Fun, one of my all-time favorite comfort foods!
I can’t wait for you to try this Char Siu Chicken! It’s so easy to throw together any night of the week but packs such a big punch of sweet-savory flavor. We’re completely obsessed – I think you’ll love it too!
If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations! ♡ Happy cooking!
More Recipes from Mom’s Kitchen!
Quick & Easy Asian-Inspired Dinners
Char siu, iconic vibrantly red roasted Chinese BBQ, is one of my all-time favorite meals. Throughout my childhood & to this day, my mom often makes one of two versions – a more traditional succulent & tender char siu pork OR this particular juicy & crisp char siu chicken. If you don’t eat pork or you’re simply more likely to have chicken on hand, this recipe is a great alternative!
Sticking with tradition, this oven-roasted chicken gets the signature spiced-savory-sweet flavor of char siu from a quick & simple marinade made with just 4 simple staples: soy sauce, dark brown sugar, garlic, & Chinese five spice. If you’re after the signature red color, you can add in a few drops of red food coloring, too.
Once it’s marinated & soaked in all of the flavor, simply roast the chicken in the oven until it’s juicy & tender. If you’re a fan of smoky caramelization & super-crisp chicken skin, finish it off under the broiler for a few minutes before slicing & serving.
Aside from its deep, rich flavor, the best thing about char siu chicken is its versatility. I most often enjoy it over a bowl of rice & veggies, but you can also use it as an add-in for stir-fried noodles, fried rice, manapua or bao-style buns, & so much more – refer to the blog post, above, for tons of serving suggestions to get you started!
- 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (approx. 2.5–3 pounds), trimmed of excess fat
- 1/4 cup soy sauce (can sub tamari if gluten-free)
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar (can sub regular brown sugar if needed)
- 1 tablespoon water
- 2 teaspoons Chinese five spice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
- optional: 1/4 teaspoon red liquid food coloring
- kosher salt & ground white pepper, to season
- Prepare the char siu marinade: In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, dark brown sugar, water, Chinese five spice, garlic powder, & red food coloring (if using). Season with 1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt & 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper. Whisk to combine well. Transfer 1/2 of the marinade to a small airtight container or jar & reserve for basting the roasted chicken.
- Marinate the chicken: Trim excess skin & fat from the chicken thighs, then flatten them for faster, even cooking by partially cutting the meat away from the bone on both sides, leaving about 1/3 of the bone still attached. Place the chicken thighs in a large airtight container or resealable plastic bag & pour the remaining 1/2 of the char siu marinade over top. Toss to combine, coating the chicken in the char siu marinade well. Cover/seal & transfer to the refrigerator to marinate for at least 12 hours or up to 3 days. The longer you’re able to marinade, the more flavorful the char siu chicken!
- Roasting prep: About 30 minutes before you’re ready to roast, pull the char siu marinated chicken out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature for more even cooking. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, ensuring one oven rack is positioned in the center of the oven & a second oven rack is positioned directly under the broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or foil for easy clean up as desired. Lightly spray a wire rack with cooking spray & set it in the baking sheet. Transfer the char siu marinated chicken thighs to a wire rack, shaking off & discarding any excess marinade.
- Roast the char siu chicken: Place the char siu chicken on the center rack in the preheated oven. Roast 30 minutes, basting the chicken & rotating the sheet pan every 15 minutes. To baste, use a pastry brush or silicone basting brush to generously brush the reserved char siu sauce all over the surface of the chicken. The char siu chicken is ready once it begins to caramelize around the edges & reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, about 30 minutes. (Time under the broiler & carry-over heat will cause the internal temperature to rise to a safe 165 degrees F for serving.)
- Optional: Finish under the broiler: Preheat your oven’s broiler to its highest setting. Place the roasted char siu chicken under the broiler. Broil 3-4 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the surface of the char siu chicken is charred & caramelized as desired – be sure to keep a close eye on it as it broils, as things quickly transition from perfectly caramelized to burnt under the broiler!
- Serve: Allow the roasted char siu chicken thighs to rest for a couple of minutes before slicing & serving. As far as everyday dinners go, my family likes to serve over rice with a quick & easy veggie, like roasted broccoli or sautéed bok choy or cabbage. Roasted char siu chicken is also amazing tucked into steamed buns, nestled in a bowl of ramen or saimin, or tossed into fried rice or stir fry – try our Hawaiian-Style Chow Fun, one of my all-time favorite comfort food meals!
- Ingredient Notes:
- Can I use boneless, skinless chicken instead? Sure! While we love bone-in, skin-on chicken for their richness, juiciness, & crispy skin, boneless chicken breasts or thighs also work well for this char siu chicken recipe. Roast directly on a baking sheet (no rack required) for 15-18 minutes or until cooked through, basting halfway through as directed. If using chicken thighs, remove from the oven, carefully slice, & place under the broiler as directed for a crispy finish. If using breasts, be sure to pound the them out flat or cut them in half lengthwise (butterflied) prior to marinating to ensure they roast up evenly & skip broiling (they will dry out).
- Dark brown sugar is one of my family’s favorite pantry ingredients for savory-sweet Asian-inspired meals. Made with a more generous amount of molasses than light brown sugar, dark brown sugar tends to be richer in flavor & yields more caramelly results in marinades & sauces. If you only have light brown sugar on hand, feel free to substitute with regular light brown sugar.
- Chinese Five Spice is a warm spice blend commonly used in Chinese cooking, & it’s a must-have ingredient if you like to cook Chinese-style dishes at home. While the spices can vary in variety & number (sometimes 5 spice blends are made with more or less than 5 spices!), a Five Spice blend typically includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel, & star anise. It’s readily available in Asian grocery stores or in the spice aisle at most conventional grocery stores. My go-to is Simply Organic’s Five Spice Powder.
- Alternate Cooking Method – Grilled Char Siu Chicken: During the summer months, this char siu chicken recipe is also great on the grill! Marinate as directed. At dinnertime, prepare your grill for indirect cooking, creating a zone of direct high heat & a second zone of indirect heat. (Learn more about 2-Zone Grilling.) Place the marinated chicken on the indirect side of the grill, skin side up, as close to the fire as possible without being over direct heat. Close the lid. Cook the chicken, rotating the pieces 180 degrees & basting as directed above every 15 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the chicken (without hitting the bone) registers a temperature of 160 degrees F. Depending on the size of your chicken & the temperature of your grill, this could take as little as 15 minutes or up to 30 minutes. For crispy skin, flip the chicken & place it skin side facing down in the direct heat zone for 2-3 minutes, or until it’s as charred as you like.
- Storage & Reheating: Leftover char siu chicken will keep, stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days. Reheat leftovers in the microwave or on the stovetop until warmed through.
Keywords: char siu recipe, char siu chicken, roasted chicken recipe, Chinese BBQ chicken
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by KJ & Company, Kate Poskochil