Andrea Nguyen’s Char Siu Roasted Cauliflower

All the sweet, smoky, familiar taste of Chinese char siu -- but done with cauliflower instead.
The sweet, smoky, familiar taste of Chinese char siu — but done with cauliflower instead.

Admittedly, I’d grown a little weary of cauliflower.

Not that I don’t love this brassica’s crunch and subtle nutty sweetness. But after so many recipes for ricing, pizza crust-making, and roasting whole and every which way, I kinda had my fill.

Then, along comes the spectacular and unbelievably easy “Char Siu Roasted Cauliflower” to make me appreciate it all over again.

This clever vegetarian riff on the classic Chinese barbecue pork comes from my friend and colleague, Santa Cruz’s Andrea Nguyen, of course. It’s one of 125 recipes in her wonderful new “Ever-Green Vietnamese” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy.

As she writes in the book’s forward, she — or rather her body — “hit a wall” as she was turning 50 in 2019. No surprise, the older we get, the more we begin to experience real changes in our bodies. In our 20s, we are lucky to get away with devouring most anything without a second thought. But in our 40s, 50s, and beyond, the digestive system starts to rebel more and the calories make themselves way too much at home.

Nguyen realized she felt better returning to the style of eating that historically characterizes so many Asian cultures. Primarily out of necessity and economic realities along with sometimes religious reasons, that means eating less meat, and in fact, treating it more like a condiment than the center of the plate.

That’s the premise of this book, which incorporates all the fresh, vibrant, and bold flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, but in dishes that are largely plant-based.

Mix all the ingredients for the sauce in a large bowl to which you conveniently add the cauliflower to coat.
Mix all the ingredients for the sauce in a large bowl to which you conveniently add the cauliflower to coat.

Learn to make “Peppery Vegan Bologna” from vital wheat gluten, “Steamed Shiitake-Veggie Baos,” “Steamed Banh Mi Lettuce Wraps,” and even “Deluxe Vegan Pho.” This isn’t a book that’s strictly vegetarian, though. Nguyen includes a few seafood and meat dishes that share the billing with plenty of vegetables, such as “Shaking Salmon” served as a salad with plenty of spring baby lettuce, and “Gingery Vegetable and Beef Stir-Fry” bulked up with green beans and mushrooms.

In this particular recipe, just stir together hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, honey, soy sauce, garlic, five spice powder, and a smidge of ketchup to coat cauliflower wedges. Nguyen’s recipes are always exacting. This one follows that path, instructing how best to cut the cauliflower, which is especially important in this recipe because if the pieces are too large, they won’t cook through in the allotted time, and if they’re too small, they will end up limp rather than tender yet still toothsome.

Arrange the coated cauliflower on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Arrange the coated cauliflower on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Arrange the cauliflower wedges on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and roast in a hot oven. Follow the directions for turning them a few times as they cook, so they get coated in the sticky sauce that will reduce in the heat of the oven. The fragrance of the five spice will envelop the kitchen intoxicatingly, too.

When they are ready, the edges of the florets will have crisped and any area coated with sauce will have turned a rich mahogany.

It makes a fine vegetarian main course, a banh mi or bao filling or even a side dish to meat, seafood or poultry if you're not vegetarian.
It makes a fine vegetarian main course, a banh mi or bao filling or even a side dish to meat, seafood or poultry if you’re not vegetarian.

Take a taste and be amazed at how uncanny the resemblance to full-on char siu. It’s sweet, but balanced. The warmth of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and fennel seeds in the five-spice powder adds umami and an almost meatiness. And the high-heat roasting lends a smokiness almost like barbecuing would.

I garnished the cauliflower with slivers of green onions, and served it as a main dish with steamed rice and another veggie dish of sauteed mushrooms with green garlic. Nguyen suggests also using the char siu cauliflower as a filling for banh mi or steamed baos, and includes recipes for doing so.

This is Nguyen’s triumphant seventh cookbook. It’s always an occasion to celebrate when a new one arrives, and this one is no exception.

Deliciously addictive.
Deliciously addictive.

Char Siu Roasted Cauliflower

(Makes 4 servings)

2-pound head cauliflower

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon agave syrup or mild honey

Scant 1 tablespoon ketchup

1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 garlic cloves, minced and mashed or put through a garlic press

1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

Cut the cauliflower: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Pull off or cut away large leaves from the cauliflower, saving them for soup or broth, if you like. Trim a slice from the core end, where it’s likely discolored. While holding the cauliflower at a comfortable angle, curved-side down, insert your knife tip into the core. As you push the knife in farther, gently rock the blade side to side and back and forth. In a few seconds, the cauliflower head should crack and naturally break into two halves (mine are always uneven).

Now, cut each half into four wedges, each no thicker than 3 inches on the uneven floret side. (Hold the cauliflower flat-side or curved-side down, whichever is more comfortable. Cut an additional wedge only if you must.) Using a dish towel, dry the wedges so they’ll absorb the seasoning well.

Season and roast: In a big bowl, stir together the hoisin sauce, sesame oil, agave syrup, ketchup, soy sauce, garlic, and five-spice powder. Add the cauliflower wedges and, using a big spoon or spatula, stir to coat well. Most of the seasonings should adhere. Spread the wedges out onto the prepared baking sheet, cut-side down. Drizzle or smear any remaining seasoning from the bowl onto the wedges.

Roast the cauliflower for 15 minutes, use tongs to turn over the wedges, and then roast for 10 minutes longer. Liquid will appear on the pan. Continue roasting for 10 to 15 minutes, during which the liquid will concentrate, bubble, and thicken. As that happens, use the tongs or a spatula to flip the cauliflower pieces about three times so they pick up the seasonings. When done, the cauliflower should look richly browned and be tender yet slightly chewy. A knife tip pierced into the thickest core areas usually meets a little resistance. The total roasting time is about 40 minutes.

To get a slightly deeper color and flavor, keep the baking sheet in its place and switch on the broiler for about 60 seconds, monitoring carefully to avoid burning. Remove the cauliflower from the oven and let it rest a few minutes to develop flavor before serving.

From “Ever-Green Vietnamese” by Andrea Nguyen

More Andrea Nguyen Recipes to Enjoy: Baked Char Siu Pork Buns

And: Shortcut Plain Steamed Buns From Biscuit Dough

And: Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu

And: Herby Oven-Steamed Eggs

And: Spicy Tofu with Lamb and Sichuan Peppercorn

And: Pan-Fried Pho Noodles

And: Pan-Roasted Tomatoes Stuffed with Pork

Another Plant-Based Char Siu Recipe to Make: Char Siu Yams by Steven Raichlen

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  • Ooh this looks so good! Admittedly cauliflower isn’t one of my favorite veggies either, but anything would taste good in char siu sauce. I’ve been listening to Andrea’s podcast, Everything Cookbooks, and am looking forward to checking out her new cookbook.

  • Hi Joanna: Andrea’s podcast is so informative and such a great listen. I’m sure you’ll much enjoy her newest cookbook, too.

  • Wow. I saw Andrea’s book on NYT top list, and felt that it might be a bit challenging for a home cook (with no more space in the pantry) who appreciates good Vietnamese and is unlikely to hit that level. Tried this recipe on a lazy weekend night, and OMG it was a hit with everyone in my house.
    Mixed the cauliflower with black rice, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and a drop of rice vinegar and it tasted both luxurious and healthy! Thank you for sharing this recipe!

  • Hi Ania: So glad it was a hit all around. Andrea is a good friend, and her recipes are always meticulously tested. Some may require more time and work than others, but they all always deliver on flavor and satisfaction. Hope you’ll check out some of her other recipes and books. Happy new year — and happy cooking!

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