This last time I visited Chengdu, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with some of the ranking members of the retired Sichuanese chef’s association, Chuānlăo huì 川老會. We talked about my book a bit, but what I really wanted to ask them was what Sichuanese food was all about. Had it changed much? What were the classics? What did they think about current food trends in Chengdu? Things like that.
One of the biggest surprises—for me, at least—was that they were more than a bit miffed that everyone thought that Sichuan’s foods were always hot and numbing. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” one master chef told me. He pointed out that while street foods like noodles might be heavily seasoned, the finer dishes rarely were.
As always, with anything that concerns China, this has a whole lot to do with history. Sichuan does not have a single, time-honored family of cuisines like, say, Shandong or Guangdong. Sichuan has indeed been around for a very long time, but massacres and epic disasters have required massive infusions of immigrants over the centuries, and each wave brought with it their own culinary traditions.
|Remove the membrane|
For that reason you will eat endless variations here on everyday Hui Muslim foods, with their intensely creative takes on pastas and breads and goat and beef. Sichuan beef noodles, for example, is a kissing cousin to what you’ll find at a roadside stand in the Northwest, just with a bit more chile oil tossed in. Guangdong plays a major role in the banquet dishes here, as well as in fried rice and the wontons known as chāoshŏu 抄手 that are so beloved throughout this province.
But one of the truly unsung forefathers of classic Sichuanese dishes has to be Jiangsu. One bite of these tender and incredibly tasty ribs and you’ll taste the connection. But at the same time, these are a bit more hairy-chested and intense than what you’d find in the more nuanced recipes of Jiangsu.
The inspiration for this recipe came from an old cookbook I dug up in one of Chengdu's lovely used bookstores. Fermented rice wine lees, fresh ginger, and lots of green onions work their magic deep down inside the meat, while just the right amount of sea salt and a good spoonful of ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns lends the meat a welcome edge of perfume. Smoke, though, is what sends these ribs over the edge into utter perfection.
Serve these as an appetizer before a fine Sichuan-style dinner, as a bar snack with beer or something decidedly stronger and fully flavored (I recommend a Boulevardier cocktail, which is a Negroni, but bourbon is tossed in instead of the usual gin), or simply as a main entrée with some greens.
This might look fussy, since you need to cook the ribs in three steps, but most of this consists of waiting around. You can do as I do and make these over three or more days, which turns these into something even easier than seems possible. Plus, these are also excellent when made ahead of time. Just cover the ribs and microwave on high for a minute or two to return them to their full glory.
Sichuanese smoked ribs
Chuānshì xūn páigŭ 川式薰排骨
Serves 4 as an appetizer or bar snack, 2 as an entrée
Pork and marinade:
1 side pork ribs of any kind (about 1 to 1½ pounds | 450 - 600 g)
½ cup | 120 ml fermented rice lees (laozao)
1 finely chopped green onion
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon five spice powder
2 teaspoons toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons sea salt
|Deep fry the ribs for texture|
1½ cups water | 360 ml water
2 cups | 470 ml peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 55 g sugar
¼ cup | 8 g dry tea leaves of any kind
¼ cup | 50 g dry rice of any kind
1. Pat the ribs dry. Flip the ribs over so that you can see the underside with the bones. Use a paper towel to grab one corner of the fine membrane covering the inside of the ribs, loosen it with a paring knife, and then peel it off—it should come off in more or less one big sheet. If not, pluck off the stubborn bits.
2. Mix the fermented rice lees, green onion, ginger, five spice, Sichuan peppercorns, and salt together, and then rub this all over the ribs, paying particular attention to the meatier, thicker bits. Place the ribs in a resealable bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24.
3. Starting at the widest end, cut the side of ribs into groups of 3 or so ribs. As you get to the smaller end, use your judgment to figure out whether you want to cut between 3 ribs or 4—the point is to make these pieces pretty even. Whatever you do, don’t cut them into single ribs, as these will dry out too fast.
4. Set a trivet or a steamer basket inside your pressure cooker. Add the water and any remaining marinade to the pressure cooker, arrange the ribs on the trivet or steamer basket, lock on the top, and pressure cook on high for 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, release the pressure, and remove the lid. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, place the ribs on a trivet in a wide pot, cover, and cook on the stove for about 90 minutes, or until tender, adding more water as needed.) Cool the ribs down until they are warm or room temperature.
5. Pour the oil into a wok and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, slide the cooked ribs into the oil so that they don't spatter. Fry only as many as will easily fit without crowding. Brown them on both sides before removing them to a plate.
6. Prepare your smoker. Scatter the sugar, tea leaves, and rice in the bottom of your smoker. Set it on your stove, cover it, raise the temperature to high, and as soon as smoke is streaming out of the valve, remove the cover and arrange the ribs on the rack over the smoking fuel so that they touch each other as little as possible. Cover the smoker, reduce the heat to medium-low so that the fuel doesn’t turn sour or bitter, and smoke the ribs for about 10 minutes. Remove the smoker from the heat, wait about 10 to 15 minutes, and then take off the cover. Cut between the bones and either eat immediately (highly highly highly recommended) or at room temperature. Serve pickles or something tart on the side to really add zing.