Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wallowing in a porky wonderland

I am a recent convert from vegetarianism. Meatless meals are now a thing of the past, and like enthusiastic converts everywhere, I've embraced my new state of grace with a wholeheartedness that borders on mania.

Pork is my new love. Well, I do certainly enjoy the beef and chicken and fish and any other fauna that manage to wander onto my plate. But tender bits of slowly-cooked pork was a fever dream of mine for years, and though I still find it hard to reconcile my love for cute, intelligent pigs with my love for pork, I have to wonder whether even Gandhi himself would have been tempted just a little bit by a glistening pile of velvety, sticky, immaculately perfect ribs.

Take, for example, Wuxi Spareribs. I would put them against any rib recipe out there. Yes, they're that good. Before we go any further and I get all pornographic in my descriptions of the dish itself, let me get Wuxi out of the way, because that's going to be a bit of a stumbling block for most people. Wuxi (say it with me: "woo shee") is a town in the eastern province of Jiangsu, and whenever you mention it, 99% of the people at least that I know will say "Wuxi Spareribs!" And when you consider how old Wuxi is, that should give you a pretty good idea of how close to immortality this dish has achieved. 

Wuxi straddles famous Lake Tai (Taihu) just west of Suzhou and is right below the Yangtze River. It's deservedly renowned for many cultural things, but it's been hard for any of its accomplished sons or daughters to even begin to hold a candle to the fame that these ribs have brought. One taste and you'll understand just why that is. I mean, today I cooked up a side of ribs this way, took a test bite, looked at the rest of the ribs, and thought, "Yes, I could polish these off without breaking a sweat." Before I could collect my wits, I found I'd eaten four ribs in a little one-woman orgy of excess and had to quickly freeze the rest just to save myself and the seams of my jeans.

Cut between the bones
My love affair with Wuxi Spareribs is a long and passionate one. It started when I worked at the museum in Taiwan and would tag along to the endless array of delectable banquets the director would host for foreign guests. Whenever we ended up at one of Taipei’s many fancy Jiangsu-style restaurants, I’d practically hold my breath, hoping and praying that these would be served, and pacing myself so that I didn’t fill up on any of the dishes that preceded the meat courses. If no Wuxi Spareribs appeared, ah well, there was always next time, and there would still be plenty of other things to enjoy before the banquet was over.   

But if and when those spareribs did appear, I was ready with a ravenous, barely-whetted appetite. I mean, I’d be nice and let everyone else have a crack at them, but by then the speed and hunger of the other diners were usually winding down, and so I could graciously ply the other diners with the plate of glistening spareribs in the happy knowledge that they’d be refused with regretful sighs.   

And then pure happiness ensued as I polished off the plate, not caring what other foods happen to show up on the groaning lazy susan, blissfully unaware of the mountain of bones piled up in front of me and only pausing to scoop fresh rice into my bowl now and again to sponge up the deep caramel-colored sauce. There was probably much discussion behind my back about a certain crazed American at the table, but I’ve never been able to work up too much concern about what others think.

I've tried a number of different recipes for Wuxi Spareribs, and nothing comes close to this one. Many call for the ribs to be boiled before they're braised  in the signature dark, spice-infused sauce. But that method doesn’t give the ribs a chance to fully develop either their color or their flavor. No, you have to deep-fry these puppies until they’re a golden brown, and only then are they bathed in that luscious sauce and cooked to perfect tenderness.

Serve these with a pile of flash-fried pea sprouts, steamed rice, and lots of napkins. Invite others, if you are so inclined. 

Wuxi spareribs
Wuxi paigu 無錫排骨
Serves 1 to 4

1 side of pork spareribs (about 2 to 2½ pounds) cut lengthwise in half, if possible (get the best quality pork you can find -- it really shows here)
½ cup good quality, regular soy sauce
Peanut oil for frying
6 stalks green onion, smashed with the side of a cleaver and cut into 1-inch lengths
4 finger-sized pieces of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
4 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
3 to 4 cups boiling filtered water (or as needed)
4 pieces rock sugar the size of walnuts, or 5 tablespoons sugar (rock sugar highly recommended here)
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
Toasted sesame oil, optional
1. Have your butcher cut the ribs in half so that you're left with two long strips of riblets and then cut between the bones and through the cartilage at the base of the bones, or, if you don’t have an accommodating butcher, consider finding another place to buy good pork. Place the riblets in a large bowl with the soy sauce, toss well, and marinate them for 20 to 30 minutes, tossing them now and again while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. The ribs will absorb lots of the soy sauce, which you soon will find is a very good thing.

2. Heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Lift about half of the ribs out of the marinade (reserve this soy sauce for later), shake off any excess, and cautiously add them to the hot oil - it will splatter like crazy when you first put them in the hot oil, so direct the wok away from you and have a spatter screen or cover ready to protect yourself. Deep fry the ribs until they're a dark brown. They can almost be black in some areas along the edges where the soy sauce has caramelized; this is something extremely good, as these areas will turn into chewy, sticky morsels later on. Remove the fried ribs to a plate, heat the oil back up again, and add the rest of the meat. 
Marinated and fried, ready for the sauce

3. When all the ribs are brown, pour off all but a tablespoon or two of the oil. Reheat the wok, add the onions and ginger, and stir-fry them for about a minute to release their flavors. Pour in the soy sauce used as a marinade, as well as the rice wine, star anise, cinnamon, and boiling water. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the ribs, and top it off with a bit more water if necessary to cover the ribs. Bring the sauce to a boil again and then lower to a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs covered for about 90 minutes until the meatiest areas can be easily pierced with a chopstick, and then add the sugar and dark soy sauce. Remove the cover and continue to braise the ribs until they are meltingly tender. (Don't add any more water during the braising, as you want the sauce to thicken and penetrate the meat.)

4. If the meat on the ribs doesn't threaten to fall off the bones, raise the heat under the wok to high in order to boil down the sauce to a lovely dark syrup; if the meat is unable to withstand any more abuse, remove the ribs to a platter with a slotted spoon and tongs before boiling down the sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if you want, but that probably won't be necessary. 

5. Arrange the ribs in a welcoming manner on a serving platter, and be sure to claim any imperfect pieces for yourself. Strain the thick sauce to remove all the seasonings and then pour it over the ribs. You can sprinkle some sesame oil into the sauce to provide a bit more gloss, if you like, but don't add more than just a few drops, as this could overwhelm the flavors. Serve immediately while they're hot, wait a bit and serve them a room temperature, or cool them down and store for later; these freeze very well and can be reheated by steaming. 

This recipe can be multiplied easily; I usually make at least twice this amount so that I can have them ready in the freezer for when either guests blow in or I get a major jones for these divine ribs.


  1. Please give me a better description of "4 finger sized ... ginger". I take this to mean nearly a whole "hand" of ginger? Whoa! That's way too much ginger. What would the weight in grams be, please?

    1. Four fingers would be in the ballpark of 200 g, or 6 ounces. The fingers are the thinner side shoots, not including the thick "palm" of the ginger hand.

      I am deliberately vague here because aromatics like ginger, garlic, green onions, and chilies have their dedicated fans (like myself), while others prefer milder flavors. Do note that I always give definite measurements for things like soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar, which can ruin the dish if too much is added, along with the invariable caveat to "taste and adjust the seasoning."

      Another reason for this vagueness is that the ginger will not overpower the sauce due to the long simmering, and the ginger will end up being almost caramelized. (I adore nibbling on it!) It has furthermore been smashed, rather than sliced, which also diminishes its power.

      And so, the upshot is that you should add as much or little as you like. Start out with less, if you want, and taste it. After the simmering, if you desire more heat, grate some ginger and squeeze the juice into the sauce, and simmer it again just to remove the rawness. Then, make a note to up the amount the next time you make it.

      Hope this helps.